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Will NJ’s First Private Medical School Help Burnish State’s Academic Reputation?

Partnership between Seton Hall and Hackensack University Health Network could help close New Jersey’s physician shortage

seton hall university
Seton Hall University

When U.S. News & World Report released its influential graduate-school rankings last week, the news was disappointing, if not unexpected, for New Jersey’s medical schools. Of the state’s three qualifying programs, only Rutgers University’s New Jersey School of Medicine (formerly the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey -- UMDNJ) ranked in the top 75 percent by taking 73rd place for research. But the state’s medical community is hoping its schools’ standings will improve over the next decade -- and help to close a physician gap -- as Seton Hall University establishes New Jersey’s only private medical college, on the border between Nutley and Clifton.

The school, which will operate in a partnership with Hackensack University Health Network (HackensackUHN), comes just six years after Cooper Medical School of Rowan University matriculated its own charter class, which represented the first medical school to open in New Jersey in 35 years. It’s already signed a highly regarded founding dean and is mapping out a mission. Students will begin matriculating in the fall of 2018, and the two partners are working to raise the $75 million that will be needed for the physical facilitites.

When Cooper, which is too young to be fully accredited and thus qualify for the rankings, opened, it joined the New Jersey School of Medicine (NJSM), Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and Rowan’s School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM). Rowan acquired SOM earlier this decade when state lawmakers broke up UMDNJ, and Rutgers took over NJSM at the same time. Though it folded it into the school of medicine in Newark, Rutgers decided not to merge NJSM with Piscataway’s Robert Wood Johnson, and the two remain separate.

The Seton Hall groundbreaking is part of a national trend to compensate for a shortage of medical schools that came about when the profession failed to anticipate the longer lives of baby boomers. The last construction blitz was in the 1980s, when about 15 medical schools were built nationwide.

The as-yet-unnamed Seton Hall facility has school administrators touting its role in helping to relieve the acute pressure on the state’s healthcare system expected in 2020, when New Jersey will suffer from a projected shortage of 2,500 primary-care physicians and specialists. Administrators also say the medical school will fill a hole in Seton Hall’s health-related academic offerings, which comprise a health law program rated in the top 10 in the country, a nursing school, and a school of health and medical sciences.

“The school of medicine is the missing piece; it will allow us to become the preeminent center for Catholic-based health sciences education in the Northeast,” said Erik Lillquist, associate provost for academic projects. But it takes more than desire to run a healthy medical program. Will Seton Hall have what it takes?

Seton Hall at the outset

Last month, administrators from Seton Hall and HackensackUHN hired Bonita Stanton as founding dean, bringing her over from Detroit, where she last served as vice dean for research at Wayne State University School of Medicine. The nationally renowned pediatrician and prolific author received her medical degree and completed her fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine before traveling to the rural corners and slums of Bangladesh, China, and Africa as an aid worker for the World Bank, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization.

Supporters speak highly of her compassion, and a Seton Hall statement characterized her as someone who “exemplifies the servant leadership spirit that is a profound part of our mission” at the Catholic university, located in South Orange.

“We are the servants of our patients,” Stanton says, alluding to a new philosophy in medical education that centers priorities on the evolving and holistic needs of the patient rather than on doctors’ egos or budgets. “(And) we are absolutely committed to … improving the healthcare of those in greatest need.”

The Making of a mission

Identifying a mission early on is a critical step for med-school administrators, says Cooper’s founding dean Paul Katz. Aside from having the resources to erect a building, recruit faculty, and provide the “nuts and bolts of a start-up,” one of the most important tasks is to “really think about what kind of school you want to be.”

“Schools have different goals and personalities,” he says. “What is the culture that you want to have at that medical school? What are those attributes you want your students to leave with?”

At Cooper, located in downtown Camden, the mission is to respectfully serve underserved populations by cultivating empathy and an understanding of the social context in which illness occurs.

Saying that there are more qualified applicants than spots in medical schools, Katz encourages his colleagues at Seton Hall to think about the character of the student they admit.

“This goes beyond saying we want to repopulate the physicians in New Jersey but what kind of physicians are you going to have,” he says.

Stanton wholeheartedly concurs and says she wants to produce doctors who constantly educate themselves by learning collaboratively with professionals in other departments and outside hospital or office walls.

Additionally, she hopes to train doctors who push the limits of what’s possible.

“I’d like them to be gripped by the question of, ‘What else can we be doing?’ Without that, we aren’t going to be able to push things far enough or fast enough,” she says.

Vital statistics

Fifty students will enroll at Seton Hall medical in the fall of 2018 and incoming classes will grow until the student body reaches 500. In comparison, NJMS enrolls 732 students; RWJ has about 650; Cooper will eventually reach 400; and Rowan’s SOM accepts 645. As one of the state’s largest healthcare networks, HackensackUHN should be well-equipped to put its Seton Hall students to work.

The Seton Hall campus will rise on the former Roche site on the border between Nutley and Clifton, spanning both Essex and Passaic counties. It will co-locate its nursing college and its School of Health and Medical Sciences here, and HackensackUHN’s hospitals will provide the main clinical facilities for students at the three Seton Hall schools.

In November, the project won a $17 million grant from the state’s Economic Development Authority, but the partners need to raise $75 million more through the public and private sectors just for construction. They’re also expected to contribute equally to paying taxes to the municipalities that host them. As nonprofit entities, they’re not required to pay property taxes, though they’re in negotiations over the amount they’ll contribute as payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to offset the burden of hiring additional law enforcement and building infrastructure to accommodate the health center. Local officials are in real-estate talks with Roche about buying the rest of the property and filling it with tax-paying commercial tenants.

Family history

According to the U.S. News rankings, Seton Hall has the top-rated law school in the state; its finish at 65 puts it ahead of its only competitor, Rutgers, which comes in at a respectable 92. Seton Hall’s health law program stands out by tying at 9th place. Its masters of nursing program ranks in the second of three tiers. The graduate programs in the School of Health and Medical Sciences all rank in the top 110 of their categories, with the physician-assistant curriculum earning the highest grade at 27. When U.S. News last published its overall national university ranking, last year, the South Orange university placed at 123 out of more than 1,300.

Overall, the academic prestige of Seton Hall’s 10,000 students is growing. The average SAT score of an incoming freshman has climbed by 70 points over the past few years, and since 2007, students and alumni have won 18 Fulbright Scholarships and count a Rhodes Scholar among them.

Moral support

The medical-related building boom continues elsewhere in New Jersey. Rowan’s board of trustees has recently approved $100,000 to hire a consultant to study the feasibility of working with AtlantiCare Regional Health Center to establish a four-year campus in Atlantic City, bringing the total number of New Jersey medical school campuses to six That report should be ready by the end of the summer. In Harrison Township, Rowan is looking to sell a parcel of land to Inspira Health Network to build a clinic that will expand opportunities for its osteopathy students.

Seton Hall may find a good friend in Rowan. Back at Cooper, Katz says he welcomes the new school and given the dearth of viable options, doesn’t view them as competition.

“I wish them well,” he says. “Please put the word out that if they want to reach out to us we’re more than happy to help in any possible way.”

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