Merger of two health systems brings first medical school to Charlotte

City of Charlotte skyline. For the North State Journal | Eamon Queeney

CHARLOTTE/WINSTON-SALEM —  Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health, including Wake Forest School of Medicine, announced last week their official merger into a single enterprise, Atrium Health. Both health systems are renowned for their clinical expertise and the school of medicine is nationally recognized for its medical education programs and research. With the strategic combination now complete, the collective vision to transform medical education, expand patient-centered research and innovation, and define the next generation of clinical excellence becomes a reality.

In a press release, officials stated, “The new Atrium Health enterprise will bring clinical expertise together with the research, innovation and the educational capabilities of these renowned institutions to revolutionize the ways people become and stay healthy, changing lives for the better for the more than 7 million people across the region who now have access to care from the combined organization. The enterprise will have over 70,000 teammates working together to provide personalized care for each of the 15 million patient interactions it has each year, fulfilling its mission to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – for all.

“As the healthcare field goes through the most transformative period in our lifetime, in addition to a new medical school, our vision is to build a ‘Silicon Valley’ for healthcare innovation spanning from Winston-Salem to Charlotte,” said Eugene A. Woods, president and CEO of the new Atrium Health. “We are creating a nationally-leading environment for clinicians, scientists, investors and visionaries to collaborate on breakthrough technologies and cures. Everything we do will be focused on life changing care, for all, in urban and rural communities alike. And we will create jobs that provide inclusive opportunities to enhance the economic vitality of our entire region.”

The statement also noted that based on an independent economic analysis, the immediate direct and indirect annual economic and employment impact from the combined enterprise exceeds $32 billion and 180,000 jobs.

“The impact of the strategic combination will be far-reaching, elevating North Carolina as a clear destination of choice to receive medical care for people all across the nation,” said Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health and dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine. Through our combined, nationally recognized clinical centers of excellence in multiple specialties, we will be able to expand our research in signature areas, such as cancer, cardiovascular, regenerative medicine and aging, and target bringing research breakthroughs to the community in less than half the time of the national average.”

Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wake Forest School of Medicine will become the academic core of Atrium Health, building a second campus of the school of medicine in Charlotte, which is currently the largest city in the U.S. without a 4-year medical school. The growth of the school of medicine will expand existing academic research capabilities in a way that expands opportunities for clinical trials across a large, diverse market with some of the nation’s leading medical experts.

“With this combination, we are creating the future of medical education.”
Nathan O. Hatch, Ph.D., president of Wake Forest University

“With this combination, we are creating the future of medical education,” said Nathan O. Hatch, Ph.D., president of Wake Forest University. “As the only entity with two exceptional 4-year medical school locations in our region, we will become one of the largest educators of physicians and other medical professionals in the state – immediately educating over 3,500 total students across more than 100 specialized programs each year – while reducing the shortage of doctors in rural and under-served urban communities.”

With its vision for creating a next-generation academic health system, Atrium Health officials say that the new site hopes to position itself “not only be a center of excellence for medical care and academics, but also a catalyst for health innovation and economic development.” The Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem is one of just nine innovation districts in the world recognized by The Global Institute on Innovation Districts. It is seen as an anchor for the new high-tech corridor as it eventually expands to Charlotte.

The new enterprise will provide 50% more Medicaid services than any other provider in North Carolina and, officials say, is committed to eliminating disparities in care – including rural-urban and racial disparity divides in care quality. It is structured to provide more than $5 million each day in charity care and other benefits to the community.

Woods has been appointed president and CEO of the combined enterprise, guiding the strategic direction of the newly created next-generation academic health system, encompassing 42 hospitals and more than 1,500 care locations. Freischlag has been named the chief academic officer for Atrium Health, in addition to her current role as CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health and dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine. She will focus on driving leading-edge, experiential medical education and training for its academic mission and re-imagining the future of basic science and translational research.

A 16-member board of directors appointed by The Charlotte Mecklenburg Hospital Authority (CMHA) and Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center (WFUBMC) will provide governance for the new enterprise through the newly formed nonprofit corporation, Atrium Health, Inc. Edward Brown, currently board chair of CMHA, will also chair the board of the new enterprise. CMHA, WFUBMC and Wake Forest University will each retain their own governing boards.

The strategic combination was first announced in April of 2019, with a definitive agreement signed in October of last year following approval by each entity’s governing board. With today’s signing, the new enterprise takes effect immediately, as will the integration process.