Meritus Health is making plans to start a medical school to address shortage of doctors

Meritus Health officials say the area is ailing from a lack of doctors, so they're working on a homegrown remedy.

They're proposing a new medical school. Meritus officials and local business leaders said the proposal could be "a game-changer" for the area's physical health and its economy.

"It's really exciting," said Maulik Joshi, president and CEO of Meritus Health.

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If all goes as planned, the first students would enter the proposed Meritus School of Osteopathic Medicine in 2025 and graduate in 2029.

Joshi said he believes physicians trained locally would be more likely to practice in the community.

The plans, which have been in the works for a while, include building a 190,000-square-foot education building on what is now a field on the Meritus campus. The site is near Robinwood Drive and Mount Aetna Road.

The vision also includes a residential building with roughly 300 student residences on 12 acres Meritus owns along Medical Campus Road across from the Robinwood Professional Center.

Joshi said Meritus must complete a years-long accreditation and licensure process before plans for the four-year medical school become a reality.

Part of that process includes hiring the school's inaugural dean, Dr. Paula Gregory.

Gregory received some of her training in West Virginia and has experience in starting osteopathic medical programs.

"Meritus is a great place to start a medical school, because we have a hospital that's supporting us that will provide clinical rotations (for training)," Gregory said.

People being treated at Meritus also would benefit from students being trained there, she said.

"As a patient, what you will see is a student that spends time with you, that understands your health care, that will be able to translate different health ideas and help you become healthier," Gregory said.

After medical school, graduates complete residency programs, such as the family medicine residency run by Meritus. Joshi and Gregory said those who graduate from the proposed medical school could pursue a residency at Meritus or at other programs throughout the country.

More than $100 million a year in economic impact

The community also would benefit, according to local officials.

An initial analysis shows the proposed school would have an economic impact of more than $100 million a year.

"It'll be huge," Joshi said, starting with construction of the buildings, through hiring faculty and the regular operations of the school.

"I think it's going to be as transformational as anything the community has done," added Jim Kercheval, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, who has been involved in many community development projects. Kercheval also sits on the Meritus board of directors.

If the proposed school comes to fruition, it will add to a range of health educational offerings in the county — include various training programs at local high schools, the dental hygienist and nursing courses at Hagerstown Community College, and Towson University's nursing program and Frostburg State University's physician assistant programs, which are offered at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.

"When you can expand the educational footprint in our community, it brings good things," Kercheval said.

State Sen. Paul Corderman, R-Washington, said he "couldn't be more supportive" of the proposal.

"I think it's a fantastic endeavor, not only for the hospital, but also for our community," he said.

What we know about the proposed Meritus School of Osteopathic Medicine

Why propose a new medical school? Joshi, the Meritus CEO, said a physician-needs assessment is done every three years to gauge how many doctors the community needs and which areas are short. "The last time we did it, we were short 42 physicians in the community, primary care and specialty care. Today, we're short 52. So it gives you an idea of how much need there is. Access to great physician care is essential to great health," he said. He said the nation as a whole faces a shortage of physicians.

What would patients notice? Gregory, the inaugural dean, said patients might see students working with physicians and asking questions. Students might also have more time than doctors for "deeper conversations" about a patient's health.

What does "osteopathic" mean? Generally speaking, doctors of osteopathy (those with a DO after their names) and doctors of medicine (those with an MD after their names, known as "allopathic" physicians) have equivalent training and practice rights, according to the American Medical Association. Both must complete residency training and pass the same licensing exam. DOs account for approximately 11% of all physicians in the United States and work in a variety of practices and specialties, from pediatricians and anesthesiologists to family medicine physicians and surgeons. According to a joint statement from the AMA and American Osteopathic Association: "DOs receive additional training in osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM), which is the therapeutic application of manual techniques (i.e. stretching, gentle pressure and resistance) to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury. OMM can be used to treat arthritis, stress injuries, sports injuries, headaches, and pain in areas such as the lower back, neck, shoulders, and knees."

How much would Meritus invest? Roughly $150 million, to start. "It comes in essentially three buckets" of roughly equal size, Joshi said. One would be a reserve that the accrediting body asks Meritus to set aside for a number of years. Another portion would be used to hire staff and build the program. The third would go to construct the academic building.

Joshi said Meritus hopes to partner with a developer on the residential building.

How many people? Joshi said the vision includes about 180 students in each class, so the proposed school eventually could total more than 700 medical students and 70 to 80 faculty members.

What would the training cost students? Joshi said the average tuition for medical school is roughly $55,000 a year. The proposed school's operating budget could be $35 million to $45 million a year.

Who is the dean? Gregory holds a degree in biology from the University of Georgia and a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. She comes to Meritus from California Health Sciences University, where she served as the chair of primary care.

Among other achievements, Gregory served as assistant dean and chair of clinical education at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine — Georgia campus, where she started a free clinic in association with the Pilgrim Cathedral Church. She was also the founding dean and chief administrative officer of the Kansas City University School of Medicine and Bioscience — Joplin campus.

Gregory has taught clinical education for more than three decades and also serves as the current associate editor of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physician's peer-reviewed journal, Osteopathic Family Medicine.

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What would the community see? If the proposed medical school comes to fruition, there will be more students, professors, staff members and others in the community to buy houses, shop at stores, eat at restaurants and otherwise contribute to the economy.

Paul Frey, president and CEO of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, referred to the initial study showing the school would have an economic impact of more than $100 million.

"By the numbers, I think that's going to be accurate," he said.

He said he is "highly confident that this will be a game-changer for Washington County."

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Meritus Health proposing to start an osteopathic medical school