PROVIDENCE — Just last week, a major player in Rhode Island’s upcoming hospital merger announced he would be transitioning from his post as dean of Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School to focus solely on the merger between Lifespan Corporation and Care New England.
In his new role, Dr. Jack Elias will serve as special advisor for health affairs, reporting to university President Christina Paxson and Provost Richard Locke. It comes at a time when the two systems, with a minimum $125 million commitment from third-party Brown University, will soon submit their merger application to the Hospital Conversion Act to the state and the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act to the Federal Trade Commission.
Elias talked to the Globe about how the merger could change the health care and business landscapes in Rhode Island.
Q: What are some of your goals in this new position?
Elias: We want to combine research at Lifespan, Care New England and Brown to allow research discoveries to move more quickly from the lab to the bedside. There’s really an opportunity for the people in our state to have access to newer, innovative and effective treatments locally and sooner.
A key part of this is to bring us together from a research perspective as we improve our grant portfolio, bringing more funding into the state for research to lead to those innovative treatments. And the other obvious part of this is focusing on a major strength of the Warren Alpert Medical School, which is to attract and keep the best doctors here.
Q: How would this merger affect Brown University medical students and residents?
Elias: Across the nation, we are moving toward highly integrated health care that provides preventive primary care and specialty care literally from cradle to grave. For a medical student to be properly trained, they have to train in, live in and experience an optimal health care system. By being part of it, they can see where it works and where it doesn’t.
Here’s an example of what our students and residents experience now: About 80 percent of babies in Rhode Island are born at Women & Infants Hospital. If a baby is born with some health issues, they might be in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Women & Infants. But if something happens to that baby when they are a little older, they end up at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, which has a different electronic health record, different physician groups, and no continuity for a trainee trying to understand the health and development of this baby. It’s not an optimal integrated system. When you integrate that care, it becomes part of a single health care system and you have the students experiencing the positive impacts.
Having an integrated health system will allow us to compete with Boston. If we don’t do this we’re going to fall further and further behind Boston.
Q: What does having an integrated academic health system mean for the health care workforce in Rhode Island?
Elias: Having an integrated health system will allow us to compete with Boston. If we don’t do this we’re going to fall further and further behind Boston. There is no question that coming together into an integrated health system will significantly augment our ability to attract future students, future physicians, future scientists and future health care practitioners of all sorts and make us a better place to train... I would also add, and this goes back to improving care, that having this is essential to allow people in this region to access world-class care without having to travel long distances.
Q: How could a merger change the economic landscape in the state?
Elias: As we transition to an academic health center, this is going to be a more attractive place for health care discoveries to be turned into companies, and companies to stay local and grow and develop. If we can take advantage of the fact that the cost of living, cost of locating, and maintaining your company is lower in Rhode Island than other places in the Northeast or the nation, we have a much better chance to get companies to locate here.
Q: You’ve said that it’s your dream for the next dean of Brown’s medical school to look out their window and see a mass of biotech companies in the Jewelry District. Why hasn’t that happened yet?
Elias: Brown has really strengthened its focus on becoming a scientifically oriented, national and international research university over the last 20 years, during the terms of its current and immediate past president. Before then, the idea of being entrepreneurial and turning amazing biomedical discoveries in labs into new companies wasn’t front and center — part of that was the need to more fully support researchers in that work, and part of it was because we hadn’t worked integrated efforts with the hospitals.
That’s why this integrated academic health system is so exciting. Imagine what we will be able to do for patients and for our economy if we all row in the same direction.
Q: Why do you think this merger would attract biotech companies to Providence?
Elias: Creating an integrated academic health system will make Rhode Island the answer when company leaders ask this question: Where can I go to set up a company where I have access to brilliant scientists, to brilliant clinicians, access to do clinical trials, where there are smart new graduates looking for opportunities, and I can afford for my employees to live?
Brown, Lifespan, and Care New England working together is going to give companies all of that.