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WMU's New Med School

What's in it for you? Economic development, community outreach and improved community health, all part of WMU's Homer Stryker M.D. Medical School's Plan.

If you went to the movies at Alamo Drafthouse or bought shoes at Okun Bros. in the past year, you probably noticed the big, round building going up near the corner of South and Portage streets. “A new IMAX theater?” you might wonder.

The semi-conical structure is part of the new $68 million Western Michigan University medical school. And now the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. Medical School’s first students — 54 of them — are busy learning to become doctors.

But there will be, and already are, many more folks benefitting from the school’s opening than just those doctors-in-training. The school has already created jobs through building construction and the hiring of new faculty and staff, and more hiring is planned. In fact, the school is one of several major new projects downtown and is likely to give a long-term boost to the area’s economy. And a new medical examiner’s office housed at the school is creating savings for local law enforcement and has the potential to improve criminal investigations.

Of course, in addition to these gains, some of the most significant benefits for the public will be health-related. The private, nonprofit medical school has been generously supported by the community and intends to give back by addressing the pressing health needs of Southwest Michigan through research, community partnerships and service-learning projects.

Training doctors

Inside the 30,000-square-foot semi-conical addition to the school’s original building is a virtual hospital with eight rooms where students can practice medical procedures and inpatient care. Faculty members can observe from a control room or, if they can’t be present for a given session, watch it later, since all sessions are filmed.

Even before the first class arrived on the new W.E. Upjohn Campus Aug. 18, faculty members were using the virtual hospital to train medical residents (new doctors undertaking supervised practice). The patients weren’t real, though. They were dummies.

In one room, during a session on trauma and emergency care, six residents learned how to place a tracheal tube down a patient’s windpipe. They each took a turn at the task, and then Dr. Gerald Beltran gave them a chance to try inserting a longer, skinnier tube called a bougie that can help locate the trachea and allow for subsequent placement of the tracheal tube. As the tail end of the bougie whipped around in the air, Beltran warned, “Watch out for eyeballs when you’re doing this.”

He also advised the residents about the importance of wearing safety glasses. One time during surgery, he said, a ventilator detached and he got blood and fluid in his eyes. And then there’s “the pus thing,” he added.

Laura Eller, the school’s director of communications, who was giving a guest a tour, leaned over and whispered, “You missed the abscesses last week. To simulate abscesses, we take balloons and fill them with pudding.” The school tries to make the simulations as real as possible. “When we’re really going at it full speed, they can make the simulator speak or moan or groan.”

Kalamazoo has a long history of training medical residents through the former Michigan State University Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies (MSU/KCMS). Now WMU’s med school has taken its place, training about 210 residents in partnership with the two local hospitals — Bronson and Borgess — and the Family Health Center. It continues to run the former KCMS clinic on Oakland Drive, offering family medicine, pediatrics, orthopedics and other services.

A hands-on approach

While medical training is not new to Kalamazoo, a medical school is, so a lot of work has been done to get the facility ready and to hire faculty and develop the curriculum. At some med schools, students spend a lot of time in the classroom before they are introduced to clinical work; here students will have hands-on learning right from the start, through simulations and community service.

“The first year and the second year they’ll be doing simulations all the time,” says Dr. Constance Worline, the clinical director of the school’s simulation center, which also includes a virtual clinic. “The third year they’ll be working in the hospitals.”

The new simulation center has more than 24,000 square feet, compared to a previous simulation space of 1,500 feet. “This is the only facility I’ve seen that looks like this,” Worline says. “Everything we’re getting is state of the art.”

The virtual clinic features 12 exam rooms, four procedure rooms and a patient lounge. In some sessions there, the patients will be real people, but their case histories won’t be their own. “They’ll be temporary hires who’ll be memorizing a case, and they’ll have to stay on script,” Worline says.

At these sessions, seven or eight students will simultaneously enter separate exam rooms and have 35 minutes with their patient. The idea is to see how well each student does at taking a case history and developing rapport with the patient. “I’ll watch the patients, and the faculty will watch the students” from the clinic’s control room, Worline says. “It will be filmed too.”

Patients then participate in a 10-minute debriefing session with students. “They might say things like ‘You never looked at me’ or ‘You looked at your watch’ or ‘You did really well,’” Worline says.

Empathy and communication skills are important for doctors so the school uses WMU theater students to portray patients in tough situations, Worline says. Med students need to think about “How are you going to talk with someone who has just lost a 2-year-old or how are you going to tell someone they have cancer?” The theater students portray patients well, she says. “They tear up. They get angry.”

A two-way street

Community members simulating patients are one example of how the community has helped or will help the med school. Among the others:

  • The donation of the 320,000-square-foot former MPI downtown research facility for use by the school.
  • The $100 million donation to the school by Ronda Stryker and Bill Johnston and other donations that have helped the school get more than halfway toward its endowment goal of $300 million.
  • The more than 200 community physicians who help train medical residents and now will help train students too.

And even local residents who have willed their bodies to the med school. “I’m amazed at the number of people here doing willed body donations,” Eller says.

But school and community leaders say Kalamazoo and the surrounding area also will benefit greatly from having a medical school. Some of those benefits are more apparent to the public than others, and some will take longer to be felt, but Dr. Hal Jenson, dean of the medical school, has no doubt the school will have a transformative effect on Southwest Michigan.

“It may not seem significant today because the impact is really not major in the short term. It’s what will it look like in 30 or 40 years” he says. “It will be transformative for the economy and help sustain and grow the region. It will help attract physicians who want to practice in an intellectually stimulating environment. That was true for MSU/KCMS and will be even stronger with the medical school here. It will be a pipeline of physicians, a pipeline that becomes ever more critical as we face a statewide and nationwide shortage of physicians.”

One of the school’s goals is to have students from Southwest Michigan — particularly from WMU and Kalamazoo College and students who took advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise — in each class.  In the current class of 54 students, 23 are from Michigan, seven of them from Southwest Michigan; three are from WMU and two from K-College; and one is a Kalamazoo Promise grad.

“That’s a very good proportion to have,” Jenson says. “I think we have been successful in recruiting students locally, across the state and nationally.”

To foster this goal, the school’s WMedStart program allows WMU and K-College juniors to apply to the med school and get an early decision on acceptance. In its inaugural year the program has accepted one student from each school. For would-be doctors, the program increases the attractiveness of attending those schools, Jenson says. And, of course, the med school and community hope those med students will stick around after graduation. Statistics show, Jenson says, that one-third of medical residents are likely to stay on to join practices in the area.

Service-learning teams

The medical school wants to get its students involved in the community right from the start. Dr. Cheryl Dickson, associate dean of health equity and community affairs, is overseeing nine six-student teams that will spend two half-days a month learning the art of medical practice by being out in the community.

For these service-learning projects, the school is partnering with Bronson, Communities in Schools, the Family Health Center, the Kalamazoo County health department, the county mental health department, Kalamazoo’s Milwood Magnet School, Loaves & Fishes, Ministry With Community and the YWCA.

Rather than telling these organizations what the school can do for them, Dickson says, she is asking, “What do you need that we can help with?” Examples of the public-health goals med students may work on include reducing obesity in children, lessening the impact of trauma on children, and reducing chronic illness among the homeless.

The students will do research, come up with a proposal to present to the partner agency and a faculty mentor, then work on the project for two years, Dickson says.

This kind of focus on public health is becoming more common at medical schools, she says, but not all schools are giving their students these kinds of long-term projects. “To make a difference, you need a longer timeframe,” she says.

Research plans

As part of its community-based research and in cooperation with Bronson and Borgess hospitals and the Family Health Center, the med school is also looking at what it can do to increase access to care, especially for children, Jenson says.

The school also will be involved in clinical research and basic science research.  “With both Bronson and Borgess, we’re working very closely on clinical training and clinical research,” Jenson says.

Jenson says he expects the research to be funded by both federal and private dollars. The payoff is likely to be not only improvements in health care and community health but economic growth for the Kalamazoo area, say school and economic-development leaders.

Ron Kitchens, CEO of the regional economic development organization Southwest Michigan First, predicts that research funding for medical professionals will eventually translate into more startup companies here. “The Southwest Michigan Innovation Center and the medical school will have to be rooted at the hip,” he says.

Economic Impact

The school has already boosted employment and, like any project that brings new people to town, has had and will have a positive impact on home sales and retail businesses. For more than a year, tradesmen and craftspeople have been employed to do construction and renovations for the school. And, as of late July, 53 faculty and staff had been hired, 75 percent of them new to the area — meaning “new families buying new homes and buying new furniture,” Kitchens says.

And then, of course, there are the students. While the first class has 54, the medical school expects that number to grow to 84 per year over the next three to four years. “There’s going to be literally hundreds of new people downtown,” Kitchens says, which means increased sales for downtown restaurants, bars and stores.

The school is just one of several projects fueling something of a downtown renaissance, he says. The continued growth of animal health company Zoetis and Bronson hospital as well as the planned $42 million Healthy Living Campus by Kalamazoo Valley Community College will bring more people downtown, which could produce urban redevelopment projects that are 75 percent residential and 25 percent retail and office space, Kitchen predicts.

“A couple of big downtown projects are kicking around, and in the next six months I think we’ll see announcements of fully funded developments,” Kitchens says.

Steve Deisler, president of Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., is also hopeful about downtown development. “With the new students, we hope there’ll be a demand for new housing in the area, not only new homes but renovation of homes near downtown. There’s been a lot of interest by some developers…Everybody’s been checking out potential locations.”

The additional people downtown will mean more parking revenue, Kitchens says, but he is not worried about a parking crunch. “We haven’t really saturated the existing business we have. Does that mean you won’t be able to park in front of a business? I certainly hope so.” Deisler says DKI is updating its five-year parking plan. If there are a couple more large projects like the med school and the KVCC campus, “we might need to look at additional parking lots or ramps,” he says. “…We’re even looking at some kind of shuttle system downtown.”

‘Our own Quincy’

A significant byproduct of the med school is the new medical examiner’s office in Kalamazoo, which serves Kalamazoo, Allegan, Calhoun and Muskegon counties. The office conducts autopsies in deaths that are sudden and unexplained, involve criminal violence, suicide or apparent drug overdose, or occur without medical attention.

The examiner’s office is on the third floor of the med school, and the autopsy rooms and lab are on the seventh floor. Dr. Joyce deJong, who heads up that office, has also been named the founding chair of the med school’s pathology department.

As medical examiner for 12 counties — Allegan County since 1999 and Kalamazoo County since 2011— deJong was based at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital. She will continue to have some oversight of all 12 counties but now will focus primarily on Southwest Michigan, spending four days a week in Kalamazoo and one in Lansing. Three forensic pathologists who work for her are based here, and she has two forensic anthropologists on staff as well.

There will be significant advantages for local law-enforcement officers and the broader community with the medical examiner’s office here.

Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller says his department deals with about 24 autopsies a year on average. “The average autopsy is two hours,” he says, “plus the driving time to Lansing. And you can’t predict when those two hours will be. Sometimes it will take the officer all day. So we’re looking at thousands of dollars of savings in officers’ time. That officer can now stay in town and work a normal shift, go to the autopsy and return to work.” Plus, there will be savings on gasoline. “None of these vehicles get more than 20 miles per gallon.”

Other benefits are more personal. “If your family member dies and they need an autopsy, I personally think it’s more comforting to know the exam is being done locally,” deJong says. “We frequently will meet with families. If they want some things about the death explained, it’s much more convenient to come to a local facility.”

Fuller and deJong say that closer proximity is likely to lead to improved investigations. Officers can take extra time to ask questions, and a pathologist might be able to help them detect things they otherwise might not have noticed, Fuller says.

“Remember the TV show ‘Quincy’?” he says, referring to the 1976-1983 series starring Jack Klugman as a medical examiner. “I picture this as having our own personal Quincy.”

Community spirit

The theme of collaboration and cooperation among community organizations comes through over and over again as local leaders and med school officials talk about the new school.

Dickson, the med school’s associate dean of health equity and community affairs, says she came to Kalamazoo for a health equity conference in July 2013, three months before she began her job here. “I found people here are really interested in making a difference. There are people here who care so much about Kalamazoo. I felt like I was so embraced, and I hadn’t even started working here yet.”

Now she’s helping to harness that spirit to meet the community’s needs. In addition to developing service-learning projects, she has met with Kalamazoo Valley Community College leadership to discuss the planned Healthy Living Campus and how the med school might work with KVCC on community nutrition issues. She’s also active in a local health-equity alliance involving seven community organizations and hopes it can make a dent in the infant mortality rate among African Americans.

“As a medical school,” she says, “you have an obligation to serve the community you’re in.

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Fueling economic growth

The school is just one of several projects fueling something of a downtown renaissance, he says. The continued growth of animal health company Zoetis and Bronson hospital as well as the planned $42 million Healthy Living Campus by Kalamazoo Valley Community College will bring more people downtown, which could produce urban redevelopment projects that are 75 percent residential and 25 percent retail and office space. “There’s going to be literally hundreds of new people downtown,” says Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First, which means increased sales for downtown restaurants, bars and stores.

Reaching out to the community

Nine six-student teams that will spend two half-days a month learning the art of medical practice by being out in the communityfocusing on public health. The school is partnering with Bronson, Communities in Schools, the Family Health Center, the Kalamazoo County health department, the county mental health department, Kalamazoo’s Milwood Magnet School, Loaves & Fishes, Ministry With Community and the YWCA.

Advantages for local students

One of the school’s goals is to have students from Southwest Michigan — particularly from WMU and Kalamazoo College and students who took advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise — in each class.  In the current class of 54 students, 23 are from Michigan, seven of them from Southwest Michigan; three are from WMU and two from K-College; and one is a Kalamazoo Promise grad.

‘Our own Quincy’

A significant byproduct of the med school is the new medical examiner’s office in Kalamazoo, which serves Kalamazoo, Allegan, Calhoun and Muskegon counties. The office conducts autopsies in deaths that are sudden and unexplained, involve criminal violence, suicide or apparent drug overdose, or occur without medical attention.  Before now, autopsies had to be done in Lansing — having a medical examiner in Kalamazoo will save local law enforcement thousands of dollars and hours of time. 

Want to see for yourself?

Public Ceremony and Open House:

The public is invited to see the new Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. Medical School.

Date: Sept. 18

Time: Doors open at 4 p.m. Ceremony at 4:30 p.m. Self-guided tours at 5:30 p.m.

Location: The school is at 300 Portage St.; the public entrance is off South Street

Additional open house: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 20, with self-guided tour