If you live in Northeast Ohio, there’s a good chance you have something in common with your doctor and pharmacist.
Of Northeast Ohio Medical University’s 4,000 alumni, 90 percent are from Ohio. Upon graduation, the school sends about half of its medical students and 70 percent of its pharmaceutical students to work throughout the state, many in this region. It’s a university where students are not just from Ohio, but for Ohio.
The regional roots the school has nurtured were planted in response to a pressing need for primary care
physicians in Northeast Ohio. Throughout the past 45 years, NEOMED has grown, addressing that need and taking on the evolving health care issues affecting Northeast Ohio communities.
“If you go back before 1981, there was a paucity of physicians that were in the community, and it’s very hard to get physicians to practice in this community,” says Dr. Jay A. Gershen, NEOMED president. “[But] 1,200 physicians practicing in Northeast Ohio is an enormous impact. When you see your physicians, it’s very likely they’ll be NEOMED graduates.”
From Farmland to Health Hub
The Ohio legislature established Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and Pharmacy, as NEOMED previously was known, in 1973 to address the primary care doctor shortage. The University of Akron, Kent State University and Youngstown State University jointly operated NEOUCOM, which soon thereafter, purchased farmland in Rootstown to transform into a campus.
As the school grew, it added a medical research building, conference center, clinical skills center and expanded laboratories. Recently, a $166 million project doubled the campus’s to 1 million square feet. It now boasts a health and wellness center, Research in Graduate Education building and student housing, transforming NEOMED from a commuter school to a residential campus.
Expansions have even extended to the university's offerings In 2007, the school welcomed its first pharmacy students. In 2009, it added a college of graduate studies. In 2012, it established a STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) high school, BioMed Science Academy. Today, NEOMED, now an independent but public university, has 2,300-plus clinical faculty members and nearly 1,000 students. Crucial to this growth and success are partnerships with nine universities and colleges, 24 hospitals and more than 100 pharmacies.
“Our research portfolio has expanded. It’s more than doubled in the last eight years,” says Gershen, who became president of the university in 2010. “We’ve also brought in faculty from around the country from outstanding places like [Johns] Hopkins [University], Temple [University] and Washington University in St. Louis, [Cleveland] Clinic, Rutgers [University] and so forth.”
In 2016, Ritzman Pharmacy at NEOMED, a joint venture between the two entities, opened, changing the model of pharmacy visits. At Ritzman, instead of walking to the back of the drug store to pick up and pay for prescriptions, a pharmacist meets each patient out front, takes them into a consultation room, then spends some time talking to the patient about their medication and how to coordinate care with the patient’s doctor.
“This flips the model,” Gershen says.
All those pieces come together to serve the university’s mission, which is to “develop innovative healthcare professionals for and from Ohio,” says Gershen. “If you think about what health professional schools do around the country, they provide the opportunity to train healthcare providers. We do a pretty good job, collectively, in incentivizing providers to go into middle-class and wealthier neighborhoods.”
But, he adds, “[the medical sector as a whole doesn't] do a very good job incentivizing our graduates to go into underserved communities, both rural and urban,” he says. NEOMED is proud of its record of addressing that issue. It’s also proud of the impact its success has had
on the region.
“As practitioners stay close by, they hire professionals, they buy goods and services, they develop the economy,” Gershen says. NEOMED alumni generate several billion dollars in economic activity annually, with each graduate practicing in the region generating $1.25 million to $1.5 million in economic activity each year.
All of this is achieved at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers. While the state’s numerous other academic health centers operate on $1 billion or more each year, NEOMED has an annual budget of about $80 million. Because of its partnerships with hospitals and universities, the university doesn't incur the cost of clinical faculty or of operating a hospital. .
“It’s a great model, and we’re able to leverage the relationships with the hospitals,” Gershen says. “The hospitals derive tremendous benefits from this. They receive market share because they’re part of an academic health center. Two-thirds of the public would rather go to a teaching hospital. The hospitals benefit because they receive a pipeline of providers.”
The school also strengthens its connection between students and communities in need through its “education for service.” Partners fund scholarships for students who must commit to working in communities in need after they graduate. Mercy Health gave $3 million to the program. Students who benefit from a Mercy Health scholarship commit to working in one of Mercy’s underserved areas.
“I really think that the more we can fund students’ educations through the businesses that really will benefit from those educations, the better off we are,” says Gershen. “Why not have hospitals contribute to the funding? They would get a pipeline of providers that they don’t have, students would have lower indebtedness, and the community would get providers that they can’t attract.”
Another way NEOMED aspires to help the region is in disease prevention. “I’m very interested in making sure we’re a leader in health and wellness, and that we’re not just looking at curing disease, but that we’re looking at prevention and keeping people healthy,” Gershen says. “[Sequoia Wellness Company operates a] health and wellness center, of which every student is a member, plays a part in achieving that goal.
“Just think of each student seeing thousands of patients,” Gershen says. “There’s a multiplier effect. If our students think of health and wellness in a positive way, they’ll transmit that to their patients and, hopefully, we’ll get a healthier, less obese society.”
Going forward, Gershen sees NEOMED playing an ever-more integral role in community members’ lives. “Bringing the community in is very important,” he says. “Sometimes universities are seen as ivory towers or silos, and people wonder what goes on beyond the walls of the university.” NEOMED wants to welcome the community into its walls and give the public a sense of “ownership” of the university.
Tied in with everything NEOMED does is an emphasis on diversity, which, in recent years, has joined primary care and community-based health as pillars of the university. Just as Northeast Ohio communities need primary care doctors, they need medical professionals who reflect and represent them.
“There’s been a lot of research showing that patients will seek out providers who are similar to themselves, and that’s by religion, race, every possible diversity component you can imagine. It also goes by socioeconomic status,” Gershen says. “So we feel, from an access-to-care point of view, it’s advantageous for the health of the public to have local people who are interested in their communities, who relate to people in their communities well, who can serve those communities better.”