'Running with the big boys': Partnership will bring medical school to Charlotte

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Charlotte is getting a medical school, thanks to a partnership between a medical center and a health care system.

Atrium Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Wake Forest University announced Wednesday that they will establish a four-year medical school in Charlotte. Atrium and Wake Forest Baptist said the Charlotte medical school could educate nearly 3,200 students, including medical students, residents and fellows across more than 100 specialized-training programs each year.

Atrium and Wake Forest Baptist did not disclose a location or potential cost of creating the medical school and what kind of academic and support workforce it would require.

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Paul Umbach, a health care consultant who has studied the feasibility of a medical school in Charlotte, says the announcement is a long time coming. Charlotte is the largest U.S. city without a four-year medical school.

“If you look at the cities that are the strongest in terms of health care, education, research and innovation, they are the cities that have academic medical centers,” Umbach said.

Umbach is surprised this hasn’t happened sooner. Four years ago, Umbach concluded the city needed a medical school and the most likely way to achieve one would be through the University of North Carolina system. In the last month, an editorial, the chancellor of UNCC and dean of the UNC School of Medicine cited financial challenges as a barrier to building a medical school. A spokesperson for UNCC did not respond to a request for comment.

Umbach says cities with medical schools are more likely to keep positions in the city, increasing the quality of care and health of residents. He also says they serve as an economic engine.

“Medical schools do a lot more than train medical students,” Umbach said. “They become an anchor for investment and innovation.”

In a statement, Mayor Vi Lyles praised the announcement:

"Together in Charlotte, we’re always looking ahead to the promising opportunity to create a city where everyone has an equal opportunity to build a happy, healthy life and contribute to a thriving community. This announcement by Atrium Health – one of Charlotte’s leading organizations and economic drivers – of coming together with Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wake Forest University to bring a medical school of the future to Charlotte is one of the realizations of our vision for this great city.

"We have been envisioning bringing a school of medicine to the Charlotte area for decades, and to witness the possibility of this becoming a reality is truly incredible. From the economic impact this can have on our city, to the long term difference this will make the health and well-being of countless families in our area, I couldn’t be more excited about this news."

Councilman James Mitchell said everyone from construction workers to small business owners will benefit from the new school. Healthcare is the second largest employer in the Queen City, according to Mitchell.

He said the announcement boosts Charlotte’s brand and he credits Atrium, Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wake Forest University officials for their leadership.

“It is just a great win for us between having a brand like Atrium and a brand like Wake Forest Baptist and a fine university in Wake Forest to say, 'We are going to have something special in Charlotte,'” Mitchell said. “Now we are running with the big boys; we are going to have a four-year medical school in Charlotte.”

The partnership could lead to a second research park campus in Charlotte similar to what Wake Forest Baptist has created in downtown Winston-Salem with the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

A final agreement is expected to be finalized by the end of the year. Umbach estimates three to five years for construction.