Study to assess plan for Florence medical school

Florence Morning NewsDecember 15, 2012 

— Local officials are eagerly awaiting the results of a study that could be the first step in what ultimately results in a Florence-based medical school.

On Monday, the Florence City Council unanimously approved the spending of $25,000 toward a feasibility study examining the possibility of establishing an extensive medical program partnership between the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Francis Marion University and the Florence’s two major medical providers, McLeod Regional Medical Center and Carolinas Hospital System.

The study will examine the impact of having third- and fourth-year medical students training alongside physicians at the two Florence hospitals, and leaders say it could lead to a full-fledged medical program complete with a campus located in downtown Florence.

It’s a possibility that Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela said would fundamentally change the area in ways that cannot be underestimated.

“This project, if it came to fruition, would without doubt be the largest thing I’ve been involved in since being mayor,” Wukela said. “And would likely rival anything that the city has done in decades.”

The study, which costs a total of $55,000, was commissioned by the Pee Dee Health Education Partnership, which is comprised of McLeod Regional Medical Center, Carolinas Hospital System, USC School of Medicine and FMU, will focus primarily on the feasibility of bringing those third- and fourth-year medical students to Florence.

The plan, according to a number of officials close to the project, would be to have those medical students study clinical work with physicians at McLeod and Carolinas, but has the potential to expand well beyond that and encompass already existing curriculum at Francis Marion, perhaps leading to a health university center being built in downtown Florence somewhere near the FMU Performing Arts Center.

Dr. Fred Carter, Francis Marion’s president, declined to comment on the project in much detail and said he hoped the study would answer many of the questions on accommodating the medical students and the impact it would have on the university and the community.

“We’re eagerly anticipating what this feasibility study tells us,” Carter said. “There are some very, very exciting opportunities here for the university and for Florence.”

Francis Marion has begun expanding the medical training programs already in place. In three weeks, the university will begin teaching graduate courses in nurse practitioner and nursing education, brand new programs for 2013 that will accommodate 40 students and look to expand greatly in the future.

Any expansion of the university’s medical studies would significantly impact the building of a downtown medical center. The possibility of FMU beginning a physician’s assistant graduate program has been discussed as the university’s next step for its health curriculum, and has several officials close to the study saying having graduate students and third- and fourth-year medical students coming to the area would be a “game-changer” for the local economy and health services throughout the region.

“It could fundamentally change not only the nature of downtown Florence, but of Florence as a whole,” said Wukela. “The idea of having a burgeoning medical school in this community that would feed physicians into these two major hospitals, that would also serve to resolve this dramatic shortage we’ve had of physicians in this community and in the Pee Dee. Added, upon which, the prospect of having medical students and nurse practitioner students in downtown Florence, eating and drinking and living, would fundamentally change the nature of this community.”

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