As published as an OpEd in The Hartford Courant, February 27, 2007.

Space Critical at Hospital

By John W. Rowe

Connecticut residents enjoy some of the best medical care in the country. This is no accident. It is, in part, the result of people with vision creating the state's only public academic medical center at the University of Connecticut more than 40 years ago.

Academic medical centers are university-based centers that provide education and research along with clinical care. Having personally spent over a decade running one of the largest in the nation, it is very clear that the presence of an academic medical center elevates the quality of medical care in the region it serves. This is true throughout the United States and Connecticut is no exception.

This catalyst for our region's quality of life is in jeopardy. UConn's university hospital, the John Dempsey Hospital, located in the Farmington Valley, has served the central region of the state exceptionally well, yet the hospital has had no major facility upgrades or expansions in over 30 years of operation. Dramatic physical renewal is long past due, and as a result, the UConn Board of Trustees recently approved a plan to construct a replacement hospital at the health center that requires no additional taxpayer investment.

Upgrading is needed to allow our medical students, our state's future physicians, to be trained in modern, state-of-the-art facilities that feature the highest standards of quality medical care fully integrated with academics.

Expansion is warranted because Dempsey is simply running out of room. Though initially planned as a 400-bed hospital, cost and political pressures reduced its size to 224 beds by the time it opened in 1975. It is now one of the smallest university hospitals in the country. Dempsey's patient admissions continue to increase dramatically and demographic projections indicate even greater demand in the immediate future - projections supported by increasing admissions in other area hospitals.

A renovation/expansion plan was first considered but outside experts concluded that, due to the circular configuration of the existing facility, building a new, appropriately sized hospital would have the critical mass to achieve far greater operational efficiencies, be economically self-sustaining and enhance our ability to be the safest hospital in Connecticut. For these reasons the University of Connecticut's Board of Trustees recently approved a plan to construct a replacement hospital at the health center with 352 beds, an increase of 128 beds.

Although the plan requires no additional taxpayer dollars to pay for the $495 million project, it has drawn sharp criticism from other hospitals in the region. At face value the issue might appear to be nothing but a highly charged battle over market share at a time when all hospitals are under financial strain. No doubt, this alone is a legitimate matter, but there is clearly more at stake here.

Medical schools and their university hospitals, by their very nature, depend on each other. One is the lifeblood of the other. One cannot remain strong if the other is weakened.

It is essential to the future health of the UConn School of Medicine that its university hospital be appropriately sized. Going forward, the School of Medicine will be able to continue attracting the best and brightest medical students and top faculty to teach them only if its outmoded hospital is substantially updated and expanded. Without such talent the quality of our educational product will inevitably suffer. So why is it so critical to maintain, and strengthen, the quality of the UConn School of Medicine?

Ask nearly anyone in health care and they will confirm that a vibrant medical school is a tide that lifts all boats. Such schools attract expert physicians, not just to the school, but throughout the region. Physicians on the faculty of medical schools discover new knowledge and perform clinical trials in area hospitals. Medical schools run the residency programs that provide critical medical staffing to other hospitals. Students graduating from strong medical schools are more likely to do their residencies and begin practicing nearby and stay for decades to come.

A strong medical school acts as a magnet that attracts and sustains a stronger medical community that benefits the entire region, including the other hospitals in the area. Boston and New York are just two examples of this phenomenon.

Our state deserves a top-flight medical community now and in the future. It takes vision and it can happen only by building a new, expanded university hospital at the UConn Health Center.

John W. Rowe, M.D., is the chairman of the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees. He is the former chairman and CEO of Aetna Inc. and former president of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and CEO of Mount Sinai Medical Center and Mount Sinai NYU Health in New York.