Dennis Pullin makes it clear: The Virtua Health College of Medicine & Life Sciences of Rowan University was not created by happenstance, and it was not led by geography.
Pullin, the CEO of Marlton-based Virtua Health, said the system made an extensive search for an academic partner it felt could help create a new model for care, wellness, training and research — looking around the region and around the country — and that it kept coming back to the university that was 20 miles down the road in Glassboro.
“After we acquired Our Lady of Lourdes Health system (in the summer of 2019) and we got the tertiary component of our community health system that we needed, we knew we needed an academic partner in order to drive the kind of clinical care that we wanted to provide,” Pullin said.
“It didn’t have to be someone local, it just had to be someone who would be the best bet for us to do the kinds of things that we wanted to do — everything from translational research to improving care to training physicians to keeping people well in the community. It just so happened that Rowan was the school that really rose to the top.”
Rowan President Ali Houshmand was all in on the idea. In January 2022, the two announced the plans to create what they call a new academic health system.
The Virtua Health College of Medicine & Life Sciences of Rowan University encompasses three schools:
- The Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine;
- The Rowan-Virtua Rita & Larry Salva School of Nursing & Health Professions;
- The Rowan-Virtua School of Translational Biomedical Engineering & Sciences.
And, while each serves a different purpose, they all are aligned to one mission and goal: To serve southern New Jersey as a health care and wellness leader.
This would be accomplished with new models of training, new emphasis on wellness, greater health equity and greater access — both for members of the community who are seeking health care and members of the community that desire to practice health care.
All of this, Pullin and Houshmand both said, ultimately will benefit the economic well-being of the region, too.
“When Ali and I first got together to think about this, our No. 1 goal was to do something that would be meaningful, impactful and would outlive the both of us,” Pullin said.
“How could we bring what we both felt were great organizations together for the betterment of South Jersey and beyond. To date, I will say we are well ahead of where either one of us thought we could be.”
The partnership with Virtua does not impact the school’s partnership with Cooper Health and the allopathic Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.
But it does offer another opportunity to bring affordable and accessible health care — and health care training — to the region through an osteopathic school (which focuses on a holistic approach to practicing medicine).
Rowan’s osteopathic medical school, which used to partner with Philadelphia-based Jefferson Health, needed a new health system partner. And, while Jefferson does have hospitals in New Jersey, finding a system based in New Jersey was important to Rowan — and important to the benefit of the state, Houshmand said.
“The state is woefully short of doctors, especially primary care doctors,” he said. “The beauty of our school of osteopathic medicine is that close to 65% of its students stay in state to do their residency.”
When Virtua came calling, Rowan was eager to listen.
Houshmand said he feels it’s a perfect partnership: Virtua takes the lead on practicing medicine; Rowan takes the lead on training and research.
“It was two organizations, each of which, individually, were doing brilliantly,” he said. “We came together and created an academic health system. That is huge.
“Between us, we now can attract world-class doctors who also want to do research. Things that were not available, suddenly are available. It’s the perfect kind of marriage, where both sides are truly benefiting.”
The mission of VHC
The Virtua Health College of Medicine & Life Sciences
of Rowan University is built on four pillars:
- Empowerment: Using new learning models that empower students to think differently, cultivate innovation and apply real-world best practices;
- Inclusivity: Creating a culture that enables VHC to advocate for those it serves — and trains the next generation of health care professionals to be as diverse as the people it serves;
- Excellence: Raising the bar on every aspect of health care;
- Discovery: Serving as a hub of clinical discovery not only for cures, but for new equipment and tools.
South Jersey can be the biggest beneficiary, they both said.
“I believe that we are the engine that is going to revitalize the southern New Jersey economy,” Houshmand said. “That’s what excites me about the whole thing.
“We have the ability to completely revitalize counties like Salem, Cumberland and Cape May that desperately need that additional influx of people who are well-paid and can buy properties.”
Pullin agreed, calling it an imperative.
“As the president of a health system and the president of a university, we have a responsibility to create what I like to call, ‘communities of wellness,’” he said. “It’s creating communities that are absent of illness. It’s creating communities with an educated workforce.
“If we can create these communities of wellness, then, suddenly, we have this vibrant, dynamic community that attracts people not only to come here, but to stay here as well.”
Pullin and Houshmand recently talked at length with ROI-NJ about the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Life Sciences of Rowan University, detailing its progress two years after it was first announced.
Here are more key topics of the conversation. The answers are edited for space and clarity.
How it’s going
Dennis Pullin: From my perspective, we have exceeded our expectations to date. I think it’s because we started from the same place in terms of wanting to do right by the community — wanting to improve the overall health and well-being of the communities which we both live and work in by bringing those things that make us unique, individually, together. There’s been a lot of synergy.
You have to look beyond the academic and the health care benefits and ask: Are we an economic driver in the community? Yes. Are we two of the largest employers in the region? Yes. And do we have two leaders that are 100% committed to doing what’s right — not thinking about what’s just best for us individually, but what’s right for the community? Absolutely.
Impact on physician shortage
Rowan has a three-plus-three plan for medical students, one that would cut two years off the academic timeline, under development.
Ali Houshmand: There are certain areas where we really believe that four years of medical school is unnecessary. And there are brilliant kids who come from high school with a lot of advanced courses that could easily finish a science-based undergraduate program in three years.
Houshmand is hopeful of being able to enroll undergraduate students next fall. They would then enter Rowan-Virtua School of Medicine in their fourth year, focusing on primary care. The plan could save students $50,000 in costs — and start their earning power two years earlier.
Creating workforce of the future
DP: We’re training the workforce of tomorrow — and I have no delusions that we’re only training a workforce just for Virtua. We’re training physicians that will basically populate all of those other great health systems in our region.
By bringing our two nursing schools together, we have one of the largest nursing schools in the region. We are training the future clinicians of America, right here in South Jersey,
Creating technology of the future
AH: We have created a degree in orthopedic device engineering where our engineering and science students are creating and developing technologies and tools for medicine that improve health. For example, think about our engineers and scientists coming together and devising and developing the next-generation artificial hip or knee. This is the kind of work that makes this so exciting.
Increasing health equity
DP: When it comes to all things involving health equity — from addressing food insecurity to addressing special needs patients to everything else, we have to teach and train clinicians how to do that and do that with dignity.
How do we create an environment by which everybody can get the same level of care, including those with special needs and those that live in vulnerable communities?
New approaches to wellness
AH: One of the things that is very important for both of us is preventative medicine. How do we engage the balance of the university in providing wellness to people — whether it’s music therapy, animal therapy, spirituality, therapy, exercise, nutrition.
When you look at the whole issue of health care, it’s much bigger than just people going to a place called a hospital and getting well. There are so many other ways that you can really create a quality of life, especially mentally and physically.
Impact of research
AH: When you look at the entirety of higher education, there really are two reasons we exist: One is to create knowledge. The other is to impart knowledge to the next generation.
Any additional research, especially at the highest level of life sciences, is a great thing.
So, from our point of view, we are becoming a Research 1 institution (called R1 on the Carnegie Classification scale), and they are becoming much more prominent as a health system. It’s remarkable the number of top-notch doctors from across the river (who) are now knocking at our door. They want to come and work for us. Why? Because they see this opportunity.
DP: Our combined brand will be a statement that tells people you can get a quality education at an affordable price, get quality health care by world-class clinicians — and do it in a place where they are hiring world-class researchers and partnering with titans of industry to do the type of translational research that goes from the bench to the bedside.
For us, it’s not one plus one equals three — but four or five. We’ve created something that is truly unique and special. That’s what our brand stands for.
Reach Virtua Health College of Medicine & Life Sciences of Rowan University at: rowan.edu/vhc or call 856-566-6995.