Atrium, Wake Forest Plan Charlotte's First Four-Year Medical School

Apr 10, 2019

Updated: 4:20 p.m.

Atrium Health and Wake Forest University announced Wednesday that they plan to open a new medical school in Charlotte, the city's first in more than 100 years. 

"This is an exciting prospect that will have positive state and national impacts in addition to benefitting the Charlotte and Winston-Salem communities," said Nathan O. Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, in a news release. "By strengthening medical education in Winston-Salem and bringing a medical school to Charlotte, we will open many doors for future health care leaders and also play a nationally leading role in research."

Atrium and Wake Forest did not say where the new medical school would be built, only that they hope to open it "over the next few years."

There are five medical schools in North Carolina — they are located in Chapel Hill, Durham, Greenville and Winston-Salem, and a school of osteopathic medicine at Campbell University in Harnett County.

Charlotte is the largest metro area in the country without a medical school.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said the medical is "as big as any business recruitment that we’ve done."

Health care consultant Paul Umbach of Erie, Pennsylvania, has worked with cities across the country, including Charlotte, about health care. Four years ago, Umbach told a group of health care providers and officials in Charlotte that the city needed a medical school.

He thought the most likely opportunity would be through the University of North Carolina system. He applauded Wake Forest for filling that void.

“Is (having a medical school) just about saying you have one?” Umbach said in an interview with WFAE.

"I could take you all across the country, and the strongest economic centers right now are the ones that have strong academic medical centers in their core," he continued. "And that's why community leaders in Charlotte have been — and should be — advocating (for a school)."

Umbach said cities like Pittsburgh have built their entire economies around health care, and that Charlotte only has a sliver of the research and teaching medical economy of most cities. He said a city like Spokane, Washington, has more.

"If you compare Pittsburgh with Charlotte, they are the same size in population, and Charlotte has very little National Institute of Health research. Pittsburgh has over $1 billion a year in federal research that comes in," he said. "And if wasn't for the medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, that whole academic, health eco-system wouldn't be there."

If Charlotte gets a medical school, Umbach said he’s not sure of what the largest U.S. city would be without one.

“Maybe Chattanooga?” Umbach said.

In an opinion piece written for the Charlotte Observer last month, UNCC chancellor Phillip Dubois wrote:

“With respect to a medical school in Charlotte, the public and private funding challenges are simply insurmountable at this time to build a free-standing medical school. In the meantime, to grow the physician workforce, residency slots should be added in disciplines we need. Physicians are more likely to stay in communities where they train for residency than they are to practice where they go to medical school.”

The Charlotte school would work with the recently opened Wake Forest Bowman Gray Center for Medical Education in Winston-Salem.

The Charlotte and Winston-Salem campuses would educate a total of 3,200 students in 100 specialized programs. The news release said it would "offer the largest post-graduate fellowship program for nurse practitioners and physician assistants in the nation."

Atrium, Wake Forest University and Wake Forest Baptist Health said they are now negotiating, and hope to reach a final deal by the end of the year.

Charlotte's first medical school was the North Carolina Medical College, which was chartered in 1892 at Davidson College. The upper graduates moved to Charlotte in 1903 with the opening of the Presbyterian Hospital. The school closed in 1913 or 1914.