DOVER – As one of the smallest states in the nation, it likely comes as little surprise that Delaware is one of only four states that doesn’t have a medical school, but a new proposal is working to change that fact.
A year ago, top officials at Delaware State University and ChristianaCare quietly began preliminary discussions on how they may be able to offer medical degrees entirely in-state. For more than 50 years, Delawarean students have been able to earn medical degrees through a unique partnership between Thomas Jefferson University and state hospital systems through the Delaware Institute for Medical Education and Research (DIMER).
Twenty slots at Jefferson’s coveted Sidney Kimmel Medical College are held for Delawareans in order to help build a medical workforce here, and within the last two decades, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine has also begun holding 10 slots as well.
While more than 1,200 physicians have graduated through the program over five decades, it requires students to attend classroom instruction in Philadelphia for at least two years at out-of-state rates. The average medical school student loan debt upon graduation is now about $240,000.
At the university’s annual retreat in July, DSU President Tony Allen said the latest discussions began after he met with ChristianaCare CEO Dr. Janice Nevin last year, when she expressed a desire to diversify the state’s workforce. They later met with leaders from Jefferson as well.
The timing is right for such a partnership between the three because last year DSU acquired the former Wesley College, which was also located in Dover and offered a well-regarded nursing program, Allen said. The historically Black university has also seen an increasing number of students pursuing pre-med course loads – should DSU be successful, it would become only the fifth HBCU to have a medical school.
The parties have signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the idea of how to create a medical degree program in Delaware, with one option to make DSU a branch campus of the Sidney Kimmel Medical College. Students could complete two years of classroom instruction in Dover before completing two years of clinical instruction at ChristianaCare to complete their degree from Jefferson. Residencies at most of Delaware’s health care systems could then help keep more young physicians in state.
“Normally when you’re starting a medical school, you’re thinking about bricks-and-mortar. We actually don’t have to think about that in this instance, largely because of CristianaCare’s physical site,” Allen told the board.
DSU’s board of trustee member Chip Rossi questioned what the cost of building a medical school program would be, to which leaders said a potential cost had yet to be established. In one example, the University of South Carolina is embarking on building a new medical school campus at a price of about $300 million.
The Delaware leaders at the table noted that the proposal wouldn’t require developing any new buildings, which would dramatically reduce program costs.
“The economies of scale that I think one could realize in a place like Delaware would be much different than if you build stuff from the ground up,” said Dr. Omar Khan, president and CEO of the Delaware Health Sciences Alliance, which organizes joint health care projects for ChristianaCare, Jefferson, Nemours Children’s Health and the University of Delaware, including DIMER.
The leaders recognize the importance of increasing diversity within the state’s physician ranks, as studies have shown that greater diversity often leads to better health outcomes for patients as underrepresented physicians are more likely to practice in underrepresented areas, to listen and understand patients’ concerns, and to help convince patients to take preventative measures.
Yet in a state that is about 40% non-white, only about 10% of primary care physicians are either Black or Hispanic, while about 67% are white and 23% are Asian, according to a 2020 study.
“The diversity does not yet look like the state of Delaware and that’s something that we want to keep working on,” Khan said.
In a statement to Delaware Business Times, ChristianaCare confirmed its involvement in the discussions, noting that it is one of the largest community-based teaching hospitals conducting research in the United States, hosting more than 700 medical student rotations annually.
“At ChristianaCare we are committed to teaching and mentoring students, especially under-represented minorities. We continue to look for ways to innovate and grow our educational partnerships.Our exploration with Delaware State University is part of our efforts to create a workforce of tomorrow that is inclusive and diverse. The presentation made at Delaware State University was an opportunity for some design thinking for the future,” a hospital system spokesperson said.