Merging Rutgers’ medical schools under one umbrella entity with two separate campuses could yield an institution with one of America’s largest classes, boost research-dollar rankings, improve student education opportunities and expand patient access to clinical trials.
Those are some of the findings of a report by the Future of Academic Medicine Committee, empaneled last year to examine the pros and cons of consolidating Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick and New Jersey Medical School in Newark into one institution, but with real campuses in both cities.
The committee did not recommend one path forward, but stressed that the two programs are already collaborating on a growing number of efforts — including a new clinical partnership with RWJBarnabas Health designed to boost research capacity and expand medical residency options. The panel also outlined additional opportunities for integration, such as aligning curricula, using technology to connect various programs, and enabling students to take courses at both schools.
But, the report suggests that if the two state-run schools joined together under one re-branded name and banner — with alignment in admissions process and curricula, research priorities, clinical goals, and support for staff and faculty — and became accredited as one school with two campuses, it would be the only model of its kind nationwide. And by combining its resources, the merged school would likely rise in research-dollar rankings and other assessments, while attracting new support and partnership opportunities.
“I’ve asked our faculty to think about the right model for Rutgers and what medical education will look like in 2050. The goal here is not to catch up to what others are doing, but rather to set a new standard and model,” Chancellor Brian Strom told NJ Spotlight on Thursday after presenting the report to faculty and staff at both schools.
NJ Spotlight obtained a copy in advance.
Strom oversees both medical schools and six other health programs under the umbrella of Rutgers Behavioral Health Services, the entity created after former Gov. Chris Christie dismantled what had been the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 2012.
While the findings of the committee may seem anodyne — and Strom stressed no decision has been made — the process of making any major reforms is likely to be highly controversial.
The group flagged multiple concerns, including bridging cultural differences at the two schools, properly aligning accreditation metrics, effectively branding and marketing a combined program, and ensuring equitable access to research dollars and other resources.
And, while it acknowledged change would require significant investment, the group was not charged with figuring out how it would be funded.
‘Not a foregone conclusion’
“The concept of merging RWJMS and NJMS into a single medical school with co-equal campuses is a bold and essentially unprecedented initiative,” the panel wrote in its report, which was informed by input at several town halls at the schools and monthly meetings by the group. “If Rutgers is to create a new, single entity, there needs to be greater clarity regarding the vision of what can be achieved.”
Strom told NJ Spotlight that “a merger is not a foregone conclusion,” but that many of the ongoing changes represent an opportunity.
“I think we have a once-in-a-generation chance to set a vision for medical education at Rutgers and build a model that anticipates the future of healthcare.”
He said the next steps are getting a thumbs-up from the university Senate, before proceeding with further planning, and forming working groups that can hash out some of the details flagged by the committee.
According to slides from his presentation to faculty and staff, Strom listed “a single, accredited, and unified medical school on two co-equal campuses” as the top “optimal outcomes.” He also called for a model that builds on the diverse strengths of both schools, without shrinking either’s footprint, and “leapfrogs Rutgers ahead of the competition in reputation, rankings and national stature.”
Pushback from some corners
Not all members of the Rutgers biomedical community are behind the current plan. Some are concerned that leaders at the top are driving it, without sufficient input from professors, clinicians and other staff — or proper consideration of how changes could impact public health.
Others are worried about the potential impact on Newark, which relies on NJMS to provide care to many local residents, particularly through University Hospital, a teaching hospital that leans heavily on medical school faculty and students. State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), is among those who is carefully watching what this could mean for the hospital, which is the state’s only true public acute-care facility and statutorily required to help underserved patients.
“I’m in favor of any collaboration that is going to strengthen our medical university” system, Ruiz said Thursday, speaking generally as she had not read the report. But she said she would not support changes that drain resources from Newark. “We have a vested interest in keeping an institution that is growing and thriving supported,” Ruiz said of University Hospital.
This issue is not lost on the committee, a 12-member panel of clinicians and educators led by deans from each of the two schools. “It is clear that the community has great pride in having NJMS in Newark, and it is concerned about having the medical school or University Hospital taken away or changed,” the report notes.
Strom underscored Rutgers’ commitment to University Hospital on Thursday. “I have told everyone from the outset that I am open to ideas for the future, but that I will only accept a model that retains the current equality between the schools,” he told NJ Spotlight. “I really believe each school can benefit from the strengths of the other.”
Existing areas of collaboration
The committee report notes that the two schools already share the leadership of MSNJ Dean Dr. Robert L. Johnson, who has served as interim dean of RWJMS since January 2019. Administrators at both schools have also worked together on best-practice policies and the programs have joined forces on several specialty missions, like working together to grow the reach of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, which was founded in New Brunswick. And the mission and vision of both schools align well, it found.
Additional integration is also well underway, driven in large part by the 2017 agreement RBHS signed with RWJBarnabas, one of the state’s largest provider networks. That deal calls for Barnabas to invest in Rutgers biomedical programs and oversee clinical work at University Hospital, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (the teaching hospital for the New Brunswick school) and multiple other faculty practices. (The committee also noted the partnership has yet to be finalized and questions remain over how shifts in clinical revenue could impact Rutgers programs.)
There is also greater collaboration planned for Rutgers’ Graduate Medical Education programs, through which medical school graduates serve as residents in hospitals, with salaries paid by the federal and state governments. Each medical school now sponsors its own program, the report notes, but Rutgers is in the process of combining graduate education under one umbrella and administered by RBHS.
Given these existing trends, the committee said it believes the two schools “will continue to find ways to work more closely together, collaborate programmatically in education and research, and find innovative synergies. We must, however, pay careful attention to how these changes impact the academic mission of both schools.”
‘Too much too soon’
The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which represents the biomedical program’s 1,500 faculty members, says it’s particularly concerned about the pace of change, given all that is evolving at the two schools already.
“This is too much too soon,” said Diomedes Tsitouras, the union’s executive director, noting some groups are also locked in contract disputes with Rutgers. “We should get the existing stuff right first. One step at a time.”
Regardless of the path forward, it must take into account the impact on partner institutions, research dollars, and what it would mean for students, the committee said. And any changes must be clearly communicated to faculty, staff and other stakeholders, members noted, and planning and proper support is essential to any reform.
“The mere act of merging the schools will not lessen the challenges (of reaching our full potential), without significant institutional commitment and investment at a level sufficient to solve existing and new challenges,” the report states.