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Merger puts medical school in uncharted territory

Questions over higher ed restructuring, competing for resources

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As questions about the School of Osteopathic Medicine moving from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to Rowan University are slowly getting answered, more seem to arise about the future of the school.


If Gov. Chris Christie signs the legislation passed in June into law, UMDNJ-SOM and Cooper Medical School will both be part of Rowan University by the end of next year, and there is concern about the two schools existing under one umbrella.


The American Osteopathic Association issued a statement saying it would work with Rowan and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education — Rowan's accrediting body — to remain SOM's accreditation body as it transitions operating universities, answering one of the first important questions surrounding the restructuring.


But UMDNJ's board of trustees and the president of SOM's faculty senate both issued statements of opposition to the plan, and advocated for the Stratford school to remain part of UMDNJ. The School of Osteopathic Medicine, one of 26 in the nation, is highly regarded around the state and the nation as a top-level primary care training ground with 36 years of history. Cooper Medical School, meanwhile, will welcome its first class of students in August.


Faculty senate President Deanna Janora, in her statement, said the senate "can see no advantage for the faculty and students of SOM."


But Paul Katz, Cooper's dean, does see advantages to the restructuring, though they will take time to implement. The difference between allopathic schools, which issue M.D. degrees, and osteopathic schools, which issue D.O. degrees, has narrowed as more M.D. programs focus on holistic and preventative care, traditional trademarks of D.O. programs.


"Once this transition occurs — and after they're fully assimilated into Rowan, and after we're fully up and running — we will continue to think of possibilities of ways we can work together, but we're not at that point yet," Katz said.


Dr. William Strampel, dean of the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, can relate to the challenges of two medical schools under one name; Michigan State also has both osteopathic and allopathic medical schools. Like SOM, in the late 1960s, the College of Osteopathic Medicine was combined into Michigan State through legislation.


The Michigan State schools share joint psychology, radiology and neurology departments, and while many of the higher-level courses do not overlap, the schools have shared basic anatomy and biochemistry classes in the past.


Strampel said he's watching the SOM integration with great interest, especially with regard to the effect on graduate medical education residency spots and Medicare funding.


"You're upsetting the apple cart of the graduate medical education cycle," Strampel said. "Graduate medical education will be where the federal money comes to the state, and if you break that system, you're going to lose a lot of dollars that flow into New Jersey.


"No one will want to claim that if it goes badly," he said.
SOM currently has 22 resident slots within the school, and has relationships with seven hospitals for residency programs. SOM graduates account for 20 percent of residents in the state.


Deborah Briggs, president of the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals, said she expects a "slight pause" of residents looking at SOM programs over the next two years, but does not anticipate any long-term harm to New Jersey's GME system.


What Briggs does fear is Rowan's ability to balance resources between SOM and Cooper.


"Starting a medical school is a tremendous effort with tremendous resources, not only financially, but people power to get all the infrastructure in place," Briggs said. "My fear would be that the School of Osteopathic Medicine would get lost in the process as they're focusing on beginning (Cooper) Medical School."


"The problem is always going to be the perception that somebody is getting more resources than somebody else," Strampel said. "When you're not the only dog in town, I presume that will be one of those issues that will become a bone of contention."


Katz said he's not concerned about the combination of UMDNJ and Rowan debt or Cooper's funding, as "our finances are set, and that occurred when Governor (Jon) Corzine issued his executive order" to establish the school.


"The legislation also talks about the integrity and separation of SOM's funds. I think we all feel comfortable about that," Katz said. "In order to allow these schools to grow and prosper, and be the kind of schools we all want … adequate funds are going to need to be available."


Strampel also said the political nature of the reorganization will cause some "major knee burns and floor burns from battling" that will be felt up and down the state.


"Many decisions are made for political reasons that don't turn out to be the best reason," he said.


Rowan representatives and SOM Dean Thomas Cavalieri declined to be interviewed until the governor signs the legislation.


E-mail to: melindac@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mcaliendo33

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