Fast-tracking physicians? Virtua-Rowan has plan to get doctors through undergrad, med school in six years

Three-and-three proposal, which could start this fall, will save students tens of thousands of dollars while helping battle shortage of physicians/nurses

Three years of undergraduate studies, followed by three years of med school. Possible? Rowan University President Ali Houshmand said it is — and he said it’s a new model that not only will help solve the much-needed shortage of doctors and nurses and other health care professionals, but increase access at the same time.

“There are certain areas where we really believe that four years of medical school is unnecessary,” he said. “And there are brilliant kids who come from high school with a lot of advanced courses that could easily finish a science-based undergraduate in three years.”

The idea is being developed at the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Life Sciences of Rowan University.

The college, which was first announced two years ago this month, is not necessarily new — but a new way of thinking, as it combines the efforts and ideals of the biggest university in South Jersey with one of its most prominent health systems.

The goal is to not only increase care, wellness and research in the region — but train the next generation of health care providers at the same time.

And do it affordably.

Houshmand figures the three years of undergraduate education and three years of medical school will save students $50,000 in costs — and start their earning power two years earlier.

“This can be done,” he said.

Lowering the cost also increases access for students who come from lesser means — meaning more patients will be treated by health care professionals that look like them.

Houshmand said this lack of connection was a detriment during the pandemic because too many patients did not trust the health care professionals caring for them.

For Houshmand, this is diversity, equity & inclusion done right, as it breaks down barriers of access.

“We need to make sure that we create an environment where people who go and see a doctor, trust that doctor, 100%,” he said. “To me, that speaks to that diverse group of doctors that we need to train and send them off to treat everybody.”

Despite all this, Houshmand said he faces pressures from traditionalists, who are terrified of change. He is undeterred.

“We really believe this is the way to do that, because if you don’t provide access to the people who deserve it, you’re missing a lot of excellent people,” he said. “The whole issue of DEI speaks to excellence and opportunity.

“We want to bring these excellent people in to become future physicians.”

Virtua Health CEO Dennis Pullin is in total agreement.

He saw how the pandemic exacerbated the shortage of workers that is impacting the industry. Health care must find new models to create its workforce of the future, Pullin said.

“That is hugely important,” he said. “I don’t want to minimize it. When you look at the lingering effects of the pandemic, the burnout that occurred as a result of it was brutal. And this is from a field that was already suffering from a nursing shortage, already suffering from the lack of primary care physicians and other allied health professions.

“So, we are working like crazy to replace those that we’ve already lost, as well as now trying to get ahead of the game.”

It’s not just shortening the course to the finish line, but changing it, too, he said.

“How do we do a digital transformation that allows us to train nurses remotely?” he asked. “How do we look at fast-tracking folks into a new model, where we can train more individuals quicker, but yet better? How do we think about new care delivery models?”

That care, he said, could be more care at home.

“One of the things that that Virtua has sought to lead this region in, is care at home — and we can only do that with the combination of stellar clinicians and great technology.”

And with program costs that do not push away potential doctors, nurses, therapists and everyone else associated with care.

“It has to be affordable,” he said. “It’s one thing to have this big funnel where you can encourage everyone, but, if it’s not accessible from an affordability perspective, it just doesn’t work.”

Pullin said the idea goes to current health care professionals, too.

“As a result of us bringing our nursing schools together, we now have created a model by which, if one of our Virtua nurses wants to go back for additional learning or a higher degree, we’re able to make that happen at almost no cost to that employee.”

Pullin said partnerships are creating new ways to train.

“All of these individuals are a part of the ecosystem that we’re trying to improve,” he said. “And we’re doing so.”