Fresh on the heels of a merger between Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health announced earlier this month, Atrium on Friday announced $3.4 billion in planned investments for Wake Forest Baptist and its communities over the next 10 years.
Atrium said $2.8 billion would be spent on improved facilities, including the construction of a new care tower at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and an eye institute in the southern district of Innovation Quarter. Plans for the projects were first announced in November 2019, but the price tag was not.
The tower would house an emergency department, operating rooms and intensive care unit and would be built atop an existing parking deck. It would feature new operating rooms with adult intensive care units, along with radiology, pathology and other related services.
The eye institute is projected to serve about 90,000 patients annually.
Also within the $2.8 billion is funding earmarked for expansion of virtual care capabilities — including for behavioral health — and clinical care services.
The system said the remaining $600 million will include a new $150 million academic endowment and a $70 million Academic Enrichment Fund to accelerate academic initiatives.
Expansion of educational programs, biomedical research, clinical trials and life-saving treatments that improve health are also planned.
Atrium and Wake Forest Baptist said Oct. 9 they were combining into one entity under the Atrium umbrella, effective immediately.
The Atrium-Wake Forest Baptist announcement came 18 months of quiet negotiations since the Winston-Salem and Charlotte health care systems announced their collaboration in April 2019. At that time, the stated main goal was opening a medical school in Charlotte.
However, speculation swirled in both cities about Atrium potentially acquiring Wake Forest Baptist after the systems left open the possibility for a much larger strategic combination.
“Throughout the process of joining together Wake Forest Baptist Health, Wake Forest School of Medicine and Atrium Health, we’ve worked hard to understand ways we can make a difference — to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing, for all," Eugene Woods, president and chief executive of the combined Atrium, said in a statement Friday.
"Part of that is making sure we make investments into the community and the infrastructure to ensure even better care, research and education that will have a positive impact for generations to come."
Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, Wake Forest Baptist's chief executive and medical school dean, said the $3.4 billion in capital investments "not only will this improve care delivery, it will also have a tremendous, positive effect on our local and statewide economy."
Freischlag has taken on the additional duties of chief academic officer for Atrium.
With Charlotte being the largest city in the U.S. without a four-year medical school, the establishment of such a facility has been a long-sought goal of Charlotte civic and elected officials.
The initial goal was to open the Charlotte medical school campus in 2021 or 2022. The systems said Oct. 9 they have not chosen a site in Charlotte, but released in August an artist rendering of the planned campus.
The systems did not provide an update Friday on when construction would begin on the medical school or the two Winston-Salem projects.
Freischlag said some third-year residents would begin rotations in Atrium hospitals in the Charlotte area in the spring.
The systems have touted forming a Silicon Valley-type innovation corridor between the two cities, with Wake Forest Baptist and the medical school becoming “the academic core of Atrium.”
The combined Atrium will have more than 70,000 employees and expects to serve more than 15 million patient interactions annually.
Wake Forest Baptist is Forsyth County’s largest employer with about 13,000 employees, while Atrium has about 55,000 employees overall.
The systems have not responded when asked about how the combined entity would affect the local Wake Forest Baptist workforce, particularly administrative and back office jobs. They did say the integration of the two systems and their work forces would begin immediately.
Financially and operations wise, Atrium is much larger.
Atrium’s health-care system has nearly 14 million patient interactions each year across 42 hospitals and more than 900 care locations. Wake Forest Baptist has 2.2 million patient interactions each year across seven hospitals and more than 400 care locations.
Business North Carolina reported Atrium having nearly tripled the revenue of Wake Forest Baptist, which reported $55 million in excess revenue for fiscal 2019-20.
Media outlets in Charlotte reported in February that Atrium’s board approved a resolution to secure a revolving line of credit that would allow the system to borrow up to $750 million to finance operations and improvements related to the pandemic.
The open-ended nature of negotiations between Wake Forest University and Atrium raised concerns about the future of Wake Forest Baptist and its medical school in Winston-Salem. The local concern about the Charlotte campus is that it could eventually draw resources from the Winston-Salem campus or eventually lure the medical school itself from Winston-Salem.
“We will be one medical school with two sites,” Freischlag said in April 2019. “Medical students will have their choice to be in Charlotte or Winston-Salem.”
Freischlag has stressed that she and the majority of the existing medical school faculty would remain in Winston-Salem, and that the Charlotte medical school would hire new faculty and use providers within the Atrium hospital system.
Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, said the collaboration will “create the future of medical education ... becoming one of the largest educators of physicians and other medical professionals in the state."
The goal is educating more than 3,500 total students across more than 100 specialized programs each year.
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