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RWJBarnabas Invests Nearly $20M in Rutgers Sports Medicine Facility

State’s largest health system plans to put hundreds of millions of dollars to work at public university to boost federal research funding, build skilled workforce

RWJH Barnabas athletic performance center
Credit: Ben Solomon
Artist's rendering of planned sports medicine facility

The state’s largest healthcare system, RWJBarnabas Health, will spend $18 million to help create a world-class sports medicine program at Rutgers University designed to treat student athletes, others on campus, and the public at sites throughout New Jersey.

But the agreement is just the tip of the iceberg. In the years to come, RWJBarnabas plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to enhance medical research at various Rutgers biomedical programs. Hospital leaders said the goal is to increase the level of federal research funding and build a talented workforce to support pharmaceutical development and clinical care in New Jersey far into the future.

Rutgers officials heralded the healthcare network’s commitment to the state’s medical education system and its support for the RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center, which will be built near the existing athletic center on the Piscataway campus starting in the spring. The deal, celebrated with a groundbreaking on Tuesday, also makes RWJBarnabas the exclusive healthcare provider for the Rutgers athletics program.

RWJBarnabas president and CEO Barry Ostrowsky said the partnership also benefits those outside the athletic and academic communities, calling it an investment in both the university and “all of the citizens of the State.” In addition to expanding patient access to cutting-edge sports medicine in the near term, the investment will help stimulate the early research needed to fuel New Jersey’s biotech industry, develop new clinical trials for experimental treatments, and boost economic development on the state and local level.

The athletic center will serve as the headquarters for sports medicine programs that “are directly aligned with our system-wide mission of promoting healthier living for all the diverse members of our communities,” Ostrowsky said.

But the larger partnership — the details of which are still under negotiation — goes even further in support of these population health goals, Ostrowsky explained during a recent interview with NJ Spotlight. Historically, medical schools need outside funding to cover their costs, which far exceed revenue from tuition, he said, and this money often comes through arrangements with a teaching hospital or other healthcare facility.

“It’s about building a system. This upgrades the entire continuum” of the healthcare industry, Ostrowsky said. “It’s about creating a culture of high-quality clinical work.”

Brian L. Strom, executive vice president of Health Affairs and chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, which includes eight schools and clinical programs across the state, said the investment also provides Rutgers with significant leverage as it seeks to build on its research programs. “This is the next step in a partnership that will help us recruit nationally recognized researchers, specialists and clinical staff to provide the highest quality clinical care, leading-edge research, and top-tier health education and create a nationally recognized academic health center in New Jersey,” he said.

The hospital system also stands to benefit, if indirectly. RWJBarnabas — the result of a merger earlier this year between Robert Wood Johnson Health System and Barnabas Health that now operates 11 acute care hospitals and treats 3 million patients a year — will enjoy significant publicity and marketing potential in return for purchasing the naming rights for the future athletic center, as well as reimbursement for treating Rutgers athletes.

The bigger gain comes over time, Ostrowsky said, as the quality of research and clinical work improves across the profession — and people come to associate those benefits with RWJBarnabas. “The business proposition is that by doing all this we think we’ll have greater penetration into the marketplace,” he explained. “And we want (Rutgers programs) to be excellent medical schools.”

Ostrowsky said the plan is to fund the work of approximately 100 researchers over the next five to seven years, paying for their salaries, equipment, and team-member expenses. That’s the number of scientists needed to roughly double the federal research dollars Rutgers now receives, he said, noting that New Jersey needs to beef up these numbers to support the state’s critical biomedical industry.

“We’re not in a particularly good place for medical research” funding levels, Ostrowsky said. Schools like the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins far outpace biomedical programs at Rutgers when it comes to federal support for this work, he said.

Concern about lost funding opportunities was a main driver of the controversial 2013 merger between Rutgers University and the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the nation’s largest stand-alone medical school. The deal gave Rutgers control over two former UMDNJ assets, the New Jersey Medical School in Newark and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. Rutgers also operates colleges for nursing, dentistry, pharmacology, social work, and other biomedical fields. (Rowan University runs an osteopathic college and a biomedical program in Stratford.)

Since then, research dollars have increased significantly, university figures reveal. A Rutgers spokesman said the university was awarded $612.5 million in research grants in 2015 and $638 million in the current year. According to numbers released last November, when lawmakers joined Rutgers officials to celebrate the merger’s anniversary, the school collected $517.7 million in 2014 and $361.4 million in 2013.

When it comes to medical research in particular, Rutgers receives most of its funds from the National Institutes of Health — a critical source of support, Ostrowsky agreed. The university’s NIH funding rose 16 percent last year, from $138.7 million in 2015 to $160.9 million in 2016. Rutgers spokesman E.J. Miranda said.

The initial focus for RWJBarnabas, however, is working with Rutgers to build a nationally acclaimed sports medicine program, to be anchored in the 295,000-square-foot Performance Center in Piscataway. The four-story building will also include practice facilities for men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics. Officials expect construction to be completed in the summer of 2019; the project is part of a larger multi-year campaign to overhaul the school’s sporting facilities.

Eventually the facility will be staffed with a range of physical and mental health experts, including orthopedic surgeons, as well as athletic trainers, physical therapists, nutritional experts, and other “performance specialists.” These experts will work with student athletes, others on campus, and patients from the community, officials said. Hospital leaders will develop and manage the sports medicine program, which gives healthcare providers a chance to practice their skills at the new site and at other Rutgers athletic facilities, including the playing fields.

“This partnership between New Jersey’s State University, with its academic health center, and the state’s most comprehensive integrated health system, will be transformational on many levels, giving our students and athletes a world-class sports medicine program and helping us construct a cutting-edge athletic training facility,” Rutgers University President Robert Barchi said.

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