UVA Health, a roughly $4 billion health system with four acute-care hospitals, looks to expand its network across Virginia as it diversifies its revenue.
The academic health system, anchored by its flagship hospital UVA Medical Center in Charlottesville, in 2021 acquired Novant Health’s ownership stake in a three-hospital joint venture. In January, UVA Health launched a $300 million biotechnology institute that will advance its cellular and gene therapy research and expand its reach for clinical trials, said Dr. Craig Kent, CEO of UVA Health and executive vice president for health affairs at the University of Virginia.
Kent, who joined UVA Health in February 2020, talked with Modern Healthcare about the system’s expansion strategy, biotech investment and other priorities. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s driving UVA Health’s statewide expansion?
UVA Health was focused a lot on central Virginia. It saw itself as a nationally recognized academic health system with sort of ivory tower in its 700-bed hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. That's not a recipe for success. In our first year, we went out and bought three hospitals in northern Virginia, two of them up in the Manassas area and one in Culpeper. Over the last two-and-a-half years we have grown those hospitals substantially. They're for the most part [at] full [capacity], and we're bringing more complex care to those communities.
We have some fairly significant joint ventures in different disease areas like cardiovascular, cancer and such. We’ve developed affiliations with a couple of other health systems like Centra [Health] and Carilion [Clinic]. Centra and Carilion are really strong health systems, but they don't have a lot of complex care. These affiliations allow us to send our doctors to those organizations and patients come to us for pre- and post-op care. One of our goals is a statewide expansion. We really want to be the Virginia's healthcare organization.
UVA recently launched a biotech institute with the help of a private donation, state funding and internal investment. What’s the strategy?
The goal here is to have a half-a-billion-dollar biotech institute. The focus is going to be gene therapy, cellular therapy, phase 1 clinical trials, types of things that eventually we'll need FDA approval for. The goal is to bring biotech into Virginia: more business, more jobs. We’ll build a research building, which will have a major feature of bio manufacturing, where you can make human-grade material that can be used for phase 1 trials. Then, in addition, we'll recruit 100 new researchers. Our sweet spot as an academic health system is the complex patients that we take care of. Then you add on the ability to have cutting-edge or groundbreaking therapies, for things like sickle cell anemia, which gives us a draw in not just the region, but nationally and internationally.
Is an academic health system the best place to provide primary care?
We have to learn to dual task. It is a very different mission to take care of these really complex patients versus running a highly efficient, high volume, primary care, low-acuity specialty program. To be able to compete, we're going to have to be able to run two different types of care, more of a community model plus this model. One of our missions is to take care of the most complex patients on one side, and the most indigent on the other side. And we take care of plenty of people in between, but many of those people in between can find other places to be cared for.
What role should academic health systems play in healthcare? How do they need to evolve?
I think that you'll see continued and increased pressure on academic health systems to behave as if they're non-academic health systems. Words that academic health systems don't really understand—diabetes care, digital front door—we’re going to have to become increasingly familiar with to stay competitive and have patients come to us. I talk a lot about the indigent patients and these complex coronary patients, but the majority of the patients we take care of are in between. If we don't have [the in-between] patients to take care of, then we're not going to be ultimately successful.