UI College of Medicine proposes new intercampus ties to strengthen bioengineering

med students practice skills

The University of Illinois College of Medicine, largest and most diverse in the U.S., has four campuses across Illinois and offers programs in rural, urban, and global medicine.

The University of Illinois College of Medicine has presented to the university’s Board of Trustees a white paper with a series of recommendations that would integrate engineering and technology into medical training programs, develop a new bioengineering institute, and build upon research that would attract more federal dollars to the four regional College of Medicine campuses at Chicago, Peoria, Rockford and Urbana-Champaign.

The initiative would draw upon the strengths in engineering and medicine that exist across all campuses of the University of Illinois. The UI College of Medicine, based at the Chicago campus, is the largest in the nation — and the most diverse — and is part of a comprehensive health sciences center. The Urbana-Champaign campus, in turn, has one of the top-ranked colleges of engineering in the country, as well as renowned strengths in supercomputing, basic and applied sciences, and humanities.

“The University of Illinois is well-positioned to leverage and integrate existing engineering and medical expertise to provide our students new opportunities for learning and research in bioengineering and biotechnology,” said Dr. Dimitri Azar, dean of the College of Medicine. “A unified College of Medicine, together with UIC’s six other health science colleges, have the potential to promote university-wide collaborations that take advantage of our existing strengths.”

The key, Azar said, is to “couple the College of Medicine’s access to clinical learning opportunities with the Urbana-Champaign campus’s College of Engineering, which is engaged in advanced bioengineering research and device development.”

“We must reorganize and recruit additional faculty to support new programs that integrate engineering and medical education,” Azar said.

Short-term recommendations include expanding opportunities for students at all campuses by incorporating engineering into medical training; developing a new medical engineering training track; expanding an engineering-based M.D./Ph.D. program and residency programs; and formalizing partnerships with regional health systems to expand clinical training opportunities at College of Medicine sites in Peoria and Urbana-Champaign.

All of these initiatives could be achieved relatively quickly and at modest cost, Azar said.

The proposal to establish a multi-campus Illinois Translational BioEngineering Institute within the College of Medicine — to aid in the recruitment of additional faculty in engineering and medicine and attract more federal funding for bioengineering research — would require additional resources, Azar said, and could be done as a final step.

“The recommendations are designed to be accomplished within the current unified College of Medicine structure in a step-wise fashion, leading up to the development of the institute,” Azar said.

The UI College of Medicine recommendations come several months after the Urbana-Champaign campus proposed to create a new, privately-funded college of medicine that would include a strategic partnership of the new college, the Urbana-Champaign campus’s engineering college, and Carle Health System, a private, 325-bed regional medical center in Urbana. The new college would enroll 25 students in its first year, and gear up to a class size of 50 within a few years. This new college is estimated to require $400 million in start-up costs.

The UI College of Medicine recommendations have several key attributes, Azar said.

“The recommendations we are putting forward have the added benefit of saving substantial amounts of the projected start-up costs for a new medical school, and avoid the delay of seeking a new accreditation,” Azar said.

The University has already made significant strides to integrate medicine and engineering.

Supported by the Richard and Loan Hill Endowment, the UIC department of bioengineering last year was restructured to be housed jointly in the UIC College of Engineering and the UI College of Medicine. Entrepreneur and corporate CEO Rick Hill and University leaders realized that only a merged department could translate advances in biotechnology, nanomaterials and computational systems biology into innovations in neural engineering, regenerative medicine and imaging and visualization technologies.

Even greater possibilities may be realized with similar ties between the UI College of Medicine and academic units on the Urbana-Champaign campus, Azar said.

“There is significant potential for new opportunities by linking, coordinating and enhancing these activities between the UI College of Medicine, which ranks in the top third of U.S. medical schools for National Institutes of Health funding, and the College of Engineering at Urbana-Champaign, which is home to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and strong computer science and genomics programs,” he said.

The final step on the ladder – the development of a new Illinois Translational BioEngineering Institute in collaboration with the College of Engineering at Urbana-Champaign — would promote translational research and spur economic development.

The new institute “will help facilitate biotechnology development, private business spinoffs and public-private partnerships throughout Illinois,” Azar said. Integration of medicine and engineering in new training tracks and programs would also provide significant economic development and create many jobs with the hiring of new faculty and staff.

Other recommendations include formalizing clinical relationships between local hospitals and health systems and the four regional campuses of the UI College of Medicine. Existing affiliations, such as those between Carle and the Urbana-Champaign regional campus and OSF Healthcare (consisting of nine hospitals and a long-term care facility) and the Peoria regional campus could be strengthened. Strategic partnerships such as these would give medical students at the regional campuses greater access to learning in patient care environments, as well as provide M.D./Ph.D. students with a larger pool of potential subjects for biomedical research.

“One of the greatest strengths of the University of Illinois College of Medicine is that it has a truly state-wide impact and is a leader in both rural and urban medicine,” Azar said. “Right now, we have the opportunity to build upon our broad influence on research, patient care and biomedical innovation by reorganizing and enhancing our educational programs. We can dramatically expand engineering-based medical training that will let our students become leaders as physicians, scientists, and inventors of the technologies that will be the standard tools for the practice of medicine in the 21st century.”

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