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Cooper's Cross-Country Partnership Raises Profile, Improves Cancer Care

Doctors will receive training with MD Anderson, patients will participate in clinical trials.

Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic powerbroker George Norcross.
Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic powerbroker George Norcross.

The new partnership between Cooper University Health Care and MD Anderson Cancer Center announced yesterday gives Cooper a way to raise its profile, improve care for South Jersey cancer patients, and increase pressure on its rivals, according to healthcare experts.

The joint cancer center will be operated at a new $100 million facility in Camden, with a satellite in Voorhees. The deal also will allow Cooper doctors to train at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and give them daily access to MD Anderson’s treatment protocols, advanced technology, and research.

MD Anderson President Dr. Ronald DePinho said his center would bring high-level scientific research to bear to prevent cancer before it develops.

The partnership will “provide the best standards of care for tomorrow, not just with respect to new drugs or new diagnostics but new prevention paradigms that really lie at the heart of the instigators of cancer,” DePinho said.

While MD Anderson may not have the same regional name recognition as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, and Fox Chase Cancer Center, its national reputation may be unparalleled. This is reflected by its top ranking both in National Cancer Institute research funding and in the closely watched U.S. News and World Report cancer-specialty hospital rankings.

Cooper Board Chairman George Norcross and Gov. Chris Christie held the meeting in the latter's outer office, hardly a typical location for announcing a pact between two hospitals. The venue put the spotlight on the bond between Norcross, a leading Democratic powerbroker, and Christie, the Republican governor. During a week in which some Democratic party leaders are endorsing Christie, the announcement underscored the friendly working relationship between the two.

Not to be outdone by Christie calling MD Anderson the top cancer center in the country, Norcross called it the “number one cancer center in the galaxy.”

Until now, cancer treatment was something that was “done across the bridge” for residents in the state’s seven southernmost counties, said Norcross.

While Christie didn’t announce any additional funding yesterday, the state previously provided funding to build the new cancer center, which is scheduled to open in October.

DePinho said MD Anderson has “20,000 employees all focused on making cancer history,” referring to the center’s ambitious goals to reduce several different kinds of cancer.

DePinho added the announcement is a “great day for patients and a very dark day for cancer.”

The finances of the deal weren’t announced, but experts said similar arrangements generally involve an initial payment from the local hospital to the larger institution, followed by further management and quality-assurance payments. The local hospitals generally keep the bulk of insurance payments.

Hospital industry experts said the partnership was significant, noting that MD Anderson has granted full partnerships to few facilities.

“This is certainly a positive thing for Cooper and for Camden,” said Thomas Cassells, who directs healthcare advising for the Washington, D.C.,-based consulting firm The Advisory Board.

Cassells noted that there is a national trend of “brand name” health systems looking to expand their clinical networks.

While the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic is recognized for selling access to its clinical guidelines and subspecialists, Cassells said the partnership that Cooper and MD Anderson have chosen to pursue “is significantly more involved.”

Cassells said that while it may take some time for Cooper doctors to know MD Anderson’s protocols as well as the doctors in Houston, “what does happen rather quickly is that the network impact of really becoming immersed in the clinical practice environment of the specialists and subspecialists at MD Anderson and the ability in real time to connect with peers in Houston is a significant and immediate upgrade for any clinician practicing in South Jersey.”

The partnership has the potential of affecting a wide range of patients, as Cooper seeks to expand its network in New Jersey, Delaware, and eastern Pennsylvania, said Cassells. MD Anderson’s track record of turning scientific research into treatments used throughout its network is particularly well regarded, he said.

“If you like choice in quality cancer care, this is obviously a step in the right direction and in particular a step in the right direction for residents of Camden County,” Cassells said.

While MD Anderson may not be universally known in the region, Cassells expects that the level of service it can deliver will prove a competitive challenge to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Fox Chase Cancer Center, and nearby rival Virtua Health System. .

“The question to answer as this existing entity is rolled out is how well that brand equity [of neighboring hospital systems] holds out against this national brand,” based on patients’ experiences, including how easy it will be to access doctors and make appointments, said Cassells, adding that those factors will be more important than “how big of a name” MD Anderson has.

He added that MD Anderson likely sees Cooper as a chance to build its reach with patients in the long term.

“It is in effect more of an upside opportunity for MD Anderson and more of a competitive opportunity for Cooper,” he said.

MD Anderson Vice President Amy Hay said her center’s goal is to provide the same level of service at partner institutions like Cooper as it provides in Houston.

“The crux of our partnership relationship is to ensure that there’s a seamless environment both in clinical care and research in New Jersey as there is in Houston,” said Hay, who oversees cancer network business development for the center.

MD Anderson has a large amount of experience with long-distance partners, including a radiation oncology partnership with the American Hospital in Istanbul, Turkey.

Iona College heathcare management program director Paul Savage said as competitive pressures mount for hospitals, they are seeking more cross-regional partnerships.

“Trying to differentiate one’s service like cancer programs is a way to compete in the marketplace,” Savage said.

The names of both the cancer center building and the programs it offers are still being negotiated between Cooper and MD Anderson, Cooper spokeswoman Lori Shaffer said. She added that the Cooper Cancer Institute name would change to reflect the partnership.

While Cooper will continue to employ the center’s staff, clinical practitioners will have credentials from both institutions, she said. There are no plans for MD Anderson doctors to move to New Jersey, but center officials said they would be jointly recruiting new doctors.

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