Virginia Commonwealth University of Richmond will announce plans today to establish a northern campus for its medical school at Inova Fairfax Hospital in a partnership that could ease Northern Virginia's shortage of primary care doctors.
Fairfax Hospital and VCU officials said if the plan were approved and funded by the state, patients in Northern Virginia would have less difficulty finding a family practitioner, internist or pediatrician. At the same time, VCU medical trainees would have more opportunities to go into those specialities.
VCU medical dean Hermes Kontos said that it would cost about $2.5 million to construct classrooms to accommodate the 100 third- and fourth-year medical students who would train at Fairfax Hospital, and that annual operating costs could amount to several million dollars.
Details of the plan have yet to be worked out.
Many of Virginia's health care leaders, gathered in Richmond for a meeting of the state's policy-setting health care commission, generally supported the proposal. Some questioned whether the state needs a fourth major center for medical education, however.
Claude A. Allen, the state Cabinet secretary on health issues for the Republican administration of Gov. James S. Gilmore III, said opening the Northern Virginia program would enable VCU to expand its base beyond Richmond and pull in private funds, which could help support indigent care in the capital.
"It helps the region, it helps [the university hospital]," Allen said.
If the plan were phased in over the next five years, it would continue the growth and development of Inova Fairfax Hospital into one of the region's powerhouse medical facilities. The 650-bed hospital has a parent company with a healthy bottom line (a $36.2 million surplus for the first 10 months of this year), booming obstetrics and trauma care departments and training relationships with five medical schools.
"For some of our students, that will be very attractive as an alternative" to VCU's academic medical center in Richmond, said VCU President Eugene P. Trani. "We are a high-intensity, high-trauma setting, and it's a wonderful educational experience. But for some of our students, it is not the kind of setting that they will practice in."
The surging population in western Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties in recent years has outpaced the supply of primary care physicians. Many have stopped accepting new patients because their practices are at full capacity, said Inova Health System President Knox Singleton.
"People sign up with health plans, and when they go to the employee handbook for the list of participating physicians, they may have to travel a distance to find one who will take them," Singleton said.
State Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth), the House chairman of the Joint Commission on Health Care, said, "It seems like a win-win," a financial wash in terms of the money that state government must lay out against expected income.
Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington), a commission member, said the program could be a very good thing for the region.
"We've needed something like this for a long time," said Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairwoman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. "It will be good for Fairfax and all of Northern Virginia."
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.