MSU, Henry Ford formalize partnership to transform health care, address inequities

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan State University became the academic partner of Henry Ford Health System on Monday in a 30-year agreement once sought by Wayne State University.

The announcement comes two years after partnership talks between Wayne State and Henry Ford failed following a political split among WSU's Board of Governors.

The partnership between Michigan State and the five-hospital health system is aimed at transforming health care and addressing disparities in health care delivery in the state.

MSU plans to establish a regional campus within the existing Henry Ford Detroit Campus footprint. Henry Ford and MSU will develop a joint research institute, the Health Sciences Center, dedicated to research and academic activities. It will be a network of scientists, academicians, health care practitioners within the new research center.

An urban-based public health program is also planned that will feature education, research and a place to collaborate within the community. 

The partnership will focus on improving health care access, affordability and outcomes, especially for the state's most vulnerable populations, through education, research and clinical care. It will also focus on providing cancer care, increasing diversity among health care professionals and examining disparities that have long been a part of health care but came into sharper focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have long believed that strong partnerships are foundational to helping us accomplish more than we could do ourselves,” said Wright L. Lassiter III, president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System. "For us that meant finding a strong academic partner with a shared mission of service to our communities and we are so excited to have reached that major milestone."

MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. said the engagement with communities is fundamental to the land grant university's mission.

"With this enduring partnership between our two institutions, we aim to align efforts across several key efforts and programs to offer an unprecedented opportunity to integrate education, research and health care," Stanley said. "Most critical is the foundational belief that we can and will advance equity. That every individual deserves accessible, affordable, compassionate quality care. And together, we can play an essential role in delivering it."

Dr. Steven Kalkanis, Henry Ford Health System chief academic officer and Henry Ford Medical Group CEO, will be the president of the Health Sciences Center. Dr. Norman J. Beauchamp Jr., executive vice president of Health Sciences for MSU, will chair the board selected from leaders of both institutions.

The partnership between the state's largest university in East Lansing and the Detroit-based health system includes short- and long-term goals that include the integration of the two institutions around key research and program elements including health disparities, social detriments of health, primary care, precision health, cancer and more. Some will include private and philanthropic funding.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II called the partnership a "Truly historic and groundbreaking announcement." He noted the coronavirus has exposed historic inequities in health care especially in communities of color.

"Michigan State University and Henry Ford Health System are two massive entities that are coming together to make Michigan a national leader in providing access to exceptional health care for all residents, for scientific discovery and education for providers, patients and families," Gilchrist said.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said the partnership is happening "at a critical time.”

“Both institutions are at the forefront of cutting-edge medical research, education and patient care," she said. "I am confident that this partnership will mean even greater innovation and access to quality health care for Michigan residents.”

The announcement, however, made some people wistful at Wayne State, which was negotiating with Henry Ford to become the academic partner. A tentative deal faltered in February 2019 due to a political split on the board that included a faction of board members who did not support WSU President M. Roy Wilson.  

"It's a very sad, missed opportunity," said Kim Trent, who was chair of the WSU Board of Governors at the time. "As a Detroiter, I am very happy there is going to be an academic partner for Henry Ford because it's a first-class institution. I am sad that it is not Wayne State."

Trent added she was sad her former colleagues engaged in decision-making she said was destructive to Wayne State, and said there are going to be tough decisions that are going to have to be made to ensure the future of the medical school.

"It makes me sad that we lost an opportunity to have an excellent academic partner for our medical school," said Trent. "We've always had more than one medical partner. But this could have been a very positive opportunity for both Wayne State and Henry Ford. We're natural partners. We're neighbors ..."

But she stressed she has not been in conversations with the board since she left a year ago.

When asked about the failed conversations between Henry Ford and Wayne State two years ago, Lassiter said the goals in approaching Wayne State were not dissimilar to the conversations that were had with MSU.

"We wanted to have a long-term, primary clinical affiliation with a major academic entity to provide support for the research and educational activities we have going on in our organization," Lassiter. "We wanted to create a Health Sciences Center that would be manifested as a collective partnership between our two organizations to allows schools of medicine, nursing and potential other schools to collaborate in a joint relationship. We wanted to bolster research. We wanted to raise the profile of the state of Michigan to attract talent nationally and internationally."

What is unique about the MSU partnership, Lassiter said, is the commitment for a regional medical school campus in Detroit. MSU also has unique assets and capabilities that they wanted to partner with, such as the college's commitment to rural medicine.

Lassiter added Stanley had the support of the MSU Board of Trustees.

"Sam and I came to a strong philosophic agreement as to what our two organizations could accomplish together, and how we believed that partnership could have a significant impact," Lassiter said. "Sam had the support from the governing body of MSU in a way that allowed conversations that he and I and our extended teams could bring to fruition this kind of a partnership. Unfortunately, that did not exist in the prior case.”