Driving down Interstate 81, and seeing companies like Utility Trailer in Marion, VA, Strongwell in Bristol, Eastman in Kingsport, Mullican Flooring in Johnson City, and John Deere in Greeneville, the evidence is clear that our workforce can deliver the world’s leading products and services.
The same is true for health care. Ballad Health offers services that are ranked objectively among the best in America. Cardiovascular, orthopedics, stroke, pulmonary – you name it – our services have outcomes that are among the in the nation. And with the Veteran’s Administration, and the incredible independent physicians we work with, Sullivan and Washington Counties are ranked in the top 5 in Tennessee for healthcare services.
What about our institutions of higher education? ETSU boasts one of Tennessee’s most robust health science centers, with an outstanding college of public health, a medical school ranked among the best in the nation for physician placement in rural communities and the state’s largest college of nursing, providing a massive supply of nurses that has helped shield us from a looming national shortage. Emory & Henry and Milligan have strong new physician assistant programs, and they partner with us in several allied health programs. Northeast State and Virginia Highlands are community colleges with robust nursing and medical technician programs in addition to Northeast State’s Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
Even with all of this capacity, one opportunity we now have before us is our health research capability. One measure of research activity is grants from the National Institutes for Health – the world’s most competitive health research funding source. A look at NIH data shows that our congressional district has 27 active grants (mostly through ETSU and the VA), and Southwest Virginia has 111 active grants (mostly through Virginia Tech). Compare this to 1,063 active NIH grants in the Nashville area. While we are rightly proud of the research capacity in Nashville, this data does point to growth opportunity for our region.
Can we actually compete at the same level as Nashville? I say, why not? When the now-famous Research Triangle Park (RTP) of North Carolina was formed in the late 1950s, per-capita income in Raleigh, Cary, and Durham was far below the state and national averages. Although universities were initially skeptical of the idea, persistent visionaries – many from the business community – pushed the idea forward, and by 2000 it was home to more than 150 companies with 45,000 employees. Today, the RTP region’s per-capita income greatly exceeds the North Carolina average and is significantly above the U.S. national average.
What does the Research Triangle have in common with other successful efforts? According to the National Research Council’s Committee on Competing in the 21st Century, these are the keys:
• Leadership by the public and private sectors;
• Sustained investment of state and local public funds to build research infrastructure;
• Sustained support by states for universities and community colleges; and
• Public-private partnerships to further develop the necessary workforce, support research facilities and agendas, help develop new ideas, and support bringing new products and services to the market.
Ballad Health intends to help lead a similar effort in our region by investing at least 85 million new dollars over the next decade to expand our research and academic infrastructure. We believe by working together to build on four or five of our current regional strengths, we too can attract additional investment from outside the region. Already, many of our physicians lead the nation in clinical trials and privately funded research.
Linking these efforts will be compelling as we compete for research opportunity, particularly as we invest in a common health information technology platform. This platform will unify our data, and make us an attractive partner for the institutions that fund and participate in research.
The key to success is collaboration. We can expect others to want to work with and invest in us only if they see we can work with and invest in each other. To that end, Ballad and ETSU are now organizing to better align our patient care, education and research activities. We recently held the first meeting of a consortium of universities and colleges across the region interested in working together to make Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia more competitive nationally in health research and academics. And by the start of next year, we will submit to the states our plan for research and academics. This partnership is exciting to us.
Regionalizing our growth has promising opportunity. It means setting aside parochial boundaries that divide us and taking advantage of what makes us all thrive as a region.
Someone asked me if I could guarantee the success of all these initiatives. The answer, of course, is no. But it is also true that, using a basketball analogy, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So, while there is no guarantee of success, there is essentially a guarantee of failure if we don’t decide to become more competitive with the other regions of the state and country that have more aggressively sought the growth we all need in order to thrive.
Our region’s children and grandchildren should have the opportunity to raise their children here. A seemingly good way to provide that opportunity is to compete unapologetically for new growth, create jobs, and invest in our workforce. And if that is the game, we are definitely playing.
Alan Levine is the executive chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ballad Health.