Nine Northwest Indiana hospitals joined with the Indiana University School of Medicine—Northwest (IUSM—NW) Feb. 27 to formally ratify the creation of the Northwest Indiana Medical Research Consortium (NWIMRC), a nonprofit, community-based program that will give local hospitals, physicians and patients greater access to the latest clinical trials and treatments for cancer and other diseases.
During a press conference held at the IUSM—Northwest offices on the Gary, Ind. campus of Indiana University Northwest, executive representatives of the participating hospitals signaled their support for NWIMRC by taking part in a signing ceremony with IUSM—Northwest officials.
NWIMRC member hospitals include: Community Hospital; La Porte Regional Health System; Methodist Hospitals; Porter Health; Saint Anthony Medical Center – Crown Point; Saint Anthony Memorial – Michigan City; Saint Margaret Mercy Healthcare Centers; St. Catherine Hospital; and St. Mary Medical Center.
Pat Bankston, Ph.D., assistant dean and director of IUSM—NW, said that Northwest Indiana’s only medical school is proud to participate in this innovative medical partnership with a group of Indiana’s finest healthcare providers.
“Today, ours is a groundbreaking event,” Bankston said. “For the first time, our area hospitals have formally joined in a not-for-profit corporation to combine their strengths for the advancement of patient care in the entire Northwest Indiana region.”
Present at the ceremony were: John Gorski, senior vice president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Indiana (CFNI), which oversees the Community Healthcare System, and hospital administrators Don Fesko (Community Hopsital in Munster, Ind.), and Milt Triana (St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart); Michael Haley, president and CEO of La Porte Regional Health System, Inc.; Ed Charbonneau, CEO of Methodist Hospitals; Ronald Winger, president and CEO of Porter Health; Gene Diamond, CEO of Sisters of St. Francis Health Services, Inc., Northern Indiana Region; Seth Warren, president of Saint Anthony Medical Center in Crown Point; David Ruskowski, president of Saint Anthony Memorial Hospital in Michigan City; and Tom Gryzbek, president of Saint Margaret Mercy Healthcare Centers.
Diamond, one of several hospital executives to speak during the press conference, pointed out that, taken together, the NWIMRC member healthcare facilities represent more than 100,000 patients throughout Northwest Indiana. He noted that each of the hospitals is currently involved in some trials for cancer and other illnesses but said that NWIMRC would greatly expand those opportunities.
Diamond said that NWIMRC represents cooperation among competitors for the benefit of all patients.
“I can assure you that every one of the people up here is committed to the health and well-being of the patients they take care of,” Diamond said. “These folks are united in their commitment to seeing their patients receive the best resources and the best treatment they possibly can.”
Gorski, speaking on behalf of Community Health System, quoted a statistic that says 75 percent of cancer patients who are children participate in some type of clinical trial, versus only 4 percent of adult cancer patients. He said NWIMRC would help region hospitals boost that percentage in Northwest Indiana, while also giving patients the chance to seek treatment closer to home.
“It has to do with patient care,” Gorski said. “We see that as the most positive aspect of becoming part of this consortium.”
Bankston gave much of the credit for NWIMRC’s creation to Amy Han, Ph.D., economic development director for IUSM—NW. Han worked for a year to build a consensus among Northwest Indiana healthcare providers and make the consortium a reality.
“Amy’s contacts with the medical and hospital communities, her bold and assertive personality, and her endless energy have put the folks in the room you see today,” Bankston said.
Winger attested to Han’s dogged pursuit of the hospitals’ cooperation.
“I have to tell you, I dreaded taking Amy’s phone calls,” the Porter Health CEO said humorously. “She was relentless, she was focused, and she would not take no for an answer. In today’s world, that’s what it takes to move forward with something like this.”
NWIMRC will function as a not-for-profit organization governed by representatives of the member hospitals, each of which have contributed $20,000 in startup funds. Its offices will be located at IUSM—NW. Although the consortium will be administered by the medical school, the program is specifically designed to allow patients to receive treatment at their own primary healthcare facilities. This means Northwest Indiana patients should no longer need to travel extended distances to receive the latest medications for cancer or other diseases.
Bankston said it was the medical school’s neutrality and its respected status in the healthcare community that allowed it to coordinate the project with so many competing organizations.
“They all know that they will be treated fairly, and that no one will have any advantage over anyone else,” Bankston said following the press conference. “Any disputes will be handled in an impartial fashion.”
Haley said that NWIMRC fits perfectly with La Porte Regional Health System’s mission of identifying and implementing the best clinical practices for patients. He acknowledged the competitive nature of the region’s healthcare system but said that each participating hospital has something to gain from cooperation.
“We’re good at competing,” Haley said. “Let’s see how well we work together.”
The key to NWIMRC’s success will be its numbers. It can be difficult for many individual hospitals to gain access to major clinical trials because they often lack sufficient numbers of eligible patients. Thus, candidates for clinical trials often are sent to metropolitan research hospitals, instead. Through NWIMRC, region hospitals will be able to pool their patient numbers and access national trials through a single coordinating entity. And, as NWIMRC members, the consortium’s hospitals will have access to Indiana University’s vast resources and world-renowned medical research.
Ruskowski said NWIMRC will help doctors at Saint Anthony Memorial and elsewhere who want to participate in trials do so by taking over some of the paperwork and recordkeeping. By their very nature, clinical trials require a great deal of administrative work, he said. The consortium will employ research nurses and data technicians who will maintain many of those records, thereby making it easier for doctors to participate in multiple trials.
“We do have some cancer trials and cardiac trials, but they are fairly small,” said Ruskowski. “The clinical and administrative support from IU will help us to recruit more patients and participate in more trials.”
Initially, NWIMRC is expected to participate primarily in cancer trials, but Bankston and Han emphasized that the consortium is also intended to accommodate trials for many other diseases and medical conditions. Patients suffering from heart disease, diabetes, orthopedic conditions, or other ailments may also benefit from access to trials of new drugs or treatments. As NWIMRC’s numbers of eligible patients grow, they said, so will the number of available trials.
In addition to providing patients with access to promising treatments and a continuity of high-quality care, NWIMRC will bring an economic benefit to area hospitals and to the entire region by keeping healthcare dollars in Northwest Indiana. Han estimated that 25 percent of healthcare dollars here are lost to hospitals in Chicago, either because patients are sent there to participate in advanced treatments or because residents here mistakenly believe they can receive a generally higher standard of care in Chicago.
“That’s just not the case,” Han said following the Feb. 27 signing. “We have excellent doctors and hospitals here in Northwest Indiana. Many of our doctors were trained at the finest medical schools in the country. Many of them graduated from those medical schools in Chicago. With the consortium, we’re hoping to show people in Northwest Indiana that you don’t need to leave the area to receive an excellent standard of care.”
Ed Charbonneau, CEO of Methodist Hospitals, said NWIMRC can be an important step in turning around some of those public attitudes about Northwest Indiana healthcare.
“It’s going to address, I think, the misconception people have that in order to get quality healthcare you have to go to Illinois,” Charbonneau said. “Hopefully this is going to help defeat that proposition.”
The theme for NWIMRC is “The Promise of Hope for our Communities.” This reflects the consortium’s core mission, which is to provide Northwest Indiana residents with convenient access to the latest advances in the management and treatment of disease.
“We are proud to be part of such a worthy venture,” Bankston said.
IU Northwest Chancellor Bruce Bergland, in a brief introduction before the ceremony, thanked the participating hospitals for their decision to unite in the service of a common purpose. Bergland spoke about the so-called “Balkanization” of Northwest Indiana, the idea that many area communities or organizations are too disparate in aims or attitudes to work together effectively. He said NWIMRC proves things can be different.
“The fact is, here today we’re going to hear about a partnership that runs directly counter to that,” Bergland said. “It’s a shining example of what we can do in Northwest Indiana to begin moving forward.”
The Chancellor also praised the Northwest branch of the IU School of Medicine, noting that, although the medical school exists as a separate entity from its host university, IU Northwest, the two institutions have enjoyed a fruitful and mutually respectful 35-year relationship.
For more information on NWIMRC, please contact Han at (219) 980-6561 or Bankston at (219) 980-6562.