But the University of Illinois at Chicago, where the university's existing medical school is headquartered, has responded with its own plan to create a new “translational bioengineering institute” based in Chicago but including the University of Illinois' three other College of Medicine campuses in Peoria, Rockford and Urbana-Champaign.
Further discussions are expected at a Nov. 3 meeting of the University Healthcare System Committee and at a Nov. 13 meeting of the University Board of Trustees.
Dr. James Leonard, president and CEO of the 322-bed Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, said Carle has committed to contributing $100 million over 10 years to support the downstate project. Leonard said his institution is “all in on the idea.”
The concept was first discussed last summer when the hospital and the university, which represent the area's two largest employers, discussed economic development strategies.
“The state of Illinois has struggled in its economic recovery and Champaign-Urbana is not immune to that,” Leonard said. “We have one of the top engineering campuses in the world, and that led to the discussion of how nobody in the world has a medical campus that begins and ends with engineering.”
The proposal differs from the Harvard University-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Health Sciences and Technology program which is a collaboration rather than a hybrid institution, Leonard noted.
Dr. Dimitri Azar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, argued that resources would be better spent building on the school's existing infrastructure rather than on a startup.
“The future of medicine and the college of medicine of the future will be a convergence of medicine and technology—tempered by the humanistic aspects of medicine,” Azar said, noting that the university's existing college of medicine already has 190 students pursuing dual M.D.-PhD. degrees.
Despite the dispute, Azar referred to the Urbana-Champaign campus and Carle Foundation Hospital as partners of the College of Medicine.
“I prefer not to criticize—that's not my style,” he said. “In the end, I'd rather talk about the future of medicine rather than whether we have one medical school or two.”
The University of Illinois College of Medicine had an active enrollment of 1,327 for the 2013-14 academic year, losing its former title as the nation's largest medical school to Indiana University School of Medicine which had 1,350 students.
A new downstate engineering-medical college would be a boon to recruitment efforts, Leonard said. Carle is an integrated system with its own health plan and more than 400 employed physicians. Short-term plans call for adding 130 to 150 more doctors, but seeking further growth five to 10 years down the road could be a struggle.
The new Urbana-Champaign medical school “would become a bright light to attract physician-scientists,” Leonard said. “Even if they're not interested in research, they would be attracted by an environment of innovation.”
Azar predicts the same future for his Chicago plan, describing it as a major economic benefit for the state.
“The journey from the lab to the clinic will be shortened,” he said. “Engineers will come up with ideas that doctors will find ways to apply. Doctors will start to think 'What is the engineering solution to the problem I'm facing?' instead of just accepting that this is the way things are.”
Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks