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WCU plans for medical building to improve education, expand health care access

WCUStudents pursuing health careers at Western Carolina University will soon have ample chance for hands-on learning right on campus if plans for a new medical office building on Little Savannah Road move forward as expected. 

The plan is a win all around, said Doug Keskula, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences. Keskula came on board in 2013, hired with the charge to lead the college toward the vision of which the medical offices building is a part — he’s excited to see concrete plans now in the works. 

“We think it’s a win for the community, we think it’s a win for our faculty, and it’s very clearly a win for our students,” Keskula said. 

The 30,000-square-foot building will be built using university property, but not using university money. It’s being constructed by a developer, the Winston-Salem-based Summit Healthcare Group. The idea is that the developer builds the building and contracts with tenants who will use the space for their various medical practices. Those practices then collaborate with WCU faculty and staff to enhance learning and teaching at the university. Though no specifics are yet available as to who those tenants might be, WCU expects to see a mix of health care professionals and health-related businesses fill the space. 

“Our faculty can practice, and for many of them they need to keep active in the clinic to keep their skills up to be relevant for when they’re teaching students in the classroom,” Keskula said. 

The medical office building would offer them a convenient way to do that while serving a community that could use more healthcare professionals per capita. 

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“We feel this is going to open up another opportunity to provide access to hopefully a broader range of people,” Keskula said. 

But the students are the true focus of the project. To be considered educated in health care, students need real, hands-on experience. But in rural Western North Carolina, finding places for them to log that experience can be difficult. 

WCU has been working to address that problem. Harris Regional Hospital currently has a center for sports medicine and physical therapy on campus, as well as a primary care center. Students work in both clinics. And in 2015, the university secured a $225,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation to fund two years of salary for a full-time nurse practitioner at Good Samaritan Clinic in Sylva. That person also acts as a preceptor for the university, giving nine WCU nurse practitioner students hands-on experience in rural health care each year. 

The medical office building is expected to open similar opportunities up to many more students.  

“Having a facility close by, walking distance, creates a way that our students are able to be in the classroom and then literally be across the parking lot to be in the medical office building, and be able to work with health care providers to treat patients and manage care in any number of different ways,” Keskula said. 

The partnership expected to result from the building’s completion is a hallmark of the overall initiative of which it is a part — WCU’s Millennial Initiative. The university leases the 344-acre tract on which the health sciences building  — and, eventually, the medical office building  — sits to a nonprofit endowment, which then works with private enterprises to “offer synergies between academia and private practice,” in the words of Mike Byers, WCU’s vice chancellor of administration and finance. The applied research resulting from such partnerships, Byers said, will benefit Western North Carolina as a whole. 

“We do really a lot of things well at Western,” Keskula said. “Harris does a lot of things well, Mission does a lot of things well. We’re very successful independently. But the power of putting those groups together is really pretty significant in how we can improve the quality of care in the community, how we can train the next generation of health care providers.” 

The university is still working out site issues, a question that the WCU Board of Trustees discussed at its meeting earlier this month. The trick is to find a place that will be physically amenable to hosting a building while also leaving room for future projects in the university’s master plan. But the work is progressing, and the project could be complete as early as fall 2017. 

“Our expectation is that once we get the site issues resolved, the project would be built within one year,” Byers said. “We are hopeful that we’ll have the site issues resolved within the next three months.”

For Keskula, the culmination can’t come soon enough. 

“It’s experience for our students, it’s opportunities for our faculty, and it’s how we serve the community,” he said. “Anytime you can hit those three, you’ve hit a home run.” 

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