Sound Medicine

Catherine Zimmermann’s role as director of development and public relations for the Indiana University School of Medicine-Evansville is to boost awareness and support. She smiles and admits that until learning about the job opening three years ago, she didn’t know that IUSM-E existed.

Few others in the community had a clue, either. First- and second-year IU Medical School students have had the option of coming to Evansville for classwork since 1972, but there is no separate IU Medical School building here, there are no highway signs directing you. Until recently, only 32 students total (16 first-years and 16 second-years) attended each year. Classes are confined to the third floor of the Health Professions Center at the University of Southern Indiana.

“In the past, our focus was more on research, and humming along with first- and second-year students,” Zimmermann says. “Then, along came Dr. Becker, and his vision changed things.”

That’s Dr. Steven Becker, who became director of IUSM-E in 2011 and quickly brought it out of obscurity when he announced plans to build a health science education and research center that will be roughly seven times larger than the 24,000-square foot space provided at USI. The total building space of the new campus will be 170,000-square feet, a portion of which will be the medical school. If the state legislature gives its blessing, as expected, ground will be broken in 2015. The new building, or buildings, will open in 2017 at a cost of about $70 million. Total economic impact to the region is an estimated $340 million by 2020, according to consultant Tripp Umbach of Pittsburgh.

“This will likely be the largest academic health education area in the entire state, outside of Indianapolis,” Zimmermann says. “That speaks well for our region’s future in terms of health care. Long term, we do want to expand into research more.”

At the project’s core is expansion of IUSM-E from a two-year to a full four-year medical school. That’s already taking place, with third-year students attending at IUSM-E for the first time this year. Fourth-years will be added later this year in June. By 2020, IUSM-E is expected to have up to 200 students. Medical school graduates must serve three to seven years as residents, and a key part of the plan has been Becker’s ability to advocate for more residency slots locally. Currently, Deaconess Health System offers 18 positions for residents and Methodist Hospital in Henderson offers seven. That number must rise substantially, and IUSM-E has partnered with Deaconess, St. Mary’s Medical Center, Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper, Ind., and Owensboro Health to bring the number closer to 130.

“The initial investment required to build new residency programs will be well worth the cost,” Becker says. “It enhances our regional economy, and it will attract new physicians to our area, since studies show that medical students are more likely to locate their practices in the city where they trained.”

IUSM-E is one of eight regional medical schools in addition to the main location in Indianapolis, and all eight are expanding into full, four-year medical schools in order to produce 30 percent more students and stave off an anticipated shortage of physicians. Of the eight, only IUSM-E is planning a new joint academic health science and research campus. An agreement signed in October brings together USI, Ivy Tech Community College-Southwest, and the University of Evansville to utilize the new facility for their students seeking health profession careers. USI plans to focus on graduate level education and research. UE intends to add a physician assistant program to go along with its current nursing and physical therapy programs. Ivy Tech will bring the biggest number of students because all of its health science programs will move to the new site. As many as 1,400 Ivy Tech students are expected to study there by 2020. In addition, the IU School of Dentistry is expected to send its fourth-year students to Evansville, starting in 2017. The school has 434 dental students enrolled this academic year.

Now, the big question is where to build. The City of Evansville, with its development team of Skanska, LLC, and US HealthRealty, proposed a six-block area near the Ford Center and the city’s new convention center hotel (to be built by HCW, LLC, of Branson, Mo., beginning this year), for the medical school campus. According to Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, the city has secured the necessary options for its proposal. “If you read the RFP (from Indiana University), I think it screams ‘downtown,’ for its cultural and social amenities and its walkability,” Winnecke said.

Developers of The Promenade on Evansville’s East Side near Burkhardt Road and Oak Grove Road want it there, and the Warrick County Commissioners want it built just east of the Vanderburgh County line near Deaconess Gateway Hospital. USI will submit a bid to locate the new academic buildings on its campus. The final decision belongs to the IU Board of Trustees, which votes in April.

“A lot of our local leaders have voiced support for a particular location,” Zimmermann points out, “but they have also countered that by saying no matter where it gets built, this is a big win for the entire community.”

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