April 19, 2004

The toughest decision        

Charlie Andrews is associate vice president for space planning and construction in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.

Question: Should Emory Healthcare and the School of Medicine begin migrating to a new campus--away from Clifton Road? If the answer is yes, where do we move?

Hard to imagine, but these are questions facing us today. Some would say it's unimaginable; the Emory Clinic, Emory Hospital, Winship Cancer Institute, Emory Children's Center and the School of Medicine represent billions of dollars of investment on Clifton Road. How can anyone consider moving them? However, the idea of relocating health science components away from the main campus is not unique to Emory. Other major academic medical centers, including Harvard and the University of California at San Francisco, are pondering such moves.

Now that the Campus Master Plan, devised for the University five years ago, is being revisited with an added focus on Emory Healthcare and Clifton Road, we must begin to face these very tough questions. When the revised master plan is completed later this year, senior officials, including Woodruff Health Sciences Center CEO Michael Johns, Emory Health-care CEO John Fox and School of Medicine Dean Tom Lawley, will have created a new road map for the future.

In the original master plan, future growth in Emory Health-care was not considered; the focus was on the purely academic components of the campus. Over the past five years, things have changed. The CDC now is under construction to accommodate triple the number of people on its Clifton Road campus. Children's Healthcare of Atlanta is preparing to modernize and expand its hospital, and we need to do the same for Emory Hospital.

We have opened the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building, the Winship Cancer Institute and the Emory Vaccine Center. We soon will open the Pediatrics Building and the Yerkes Neurosciences Center. Also, Emory Clinic Building A must be replaced, and a new medical education and administration building is a major priority.

The Rollins School of Public Health desperately needs more space to keep up with its research and teaching mission, and a School of Medicine neurosciences center may become a reality. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

While growth is ritual to health sciences campuses, how much more can the Clifton Corridor handle? From a recent study by the planning and architectural firm HKS, we know that the development potential for Emory along Clifton between North Decatur and Briarcliff roads is more than 2 million square feet. That's equivalent to more than six Whitehead Buildings--and does not include our neighbors' development potential.

Is it sound to invest hundreds of millions more dollars in an already congested area with no sign of traffic relief in sight? If this is done blindly, in the very near future Clifton Road and the surrounding area could be in gridlock during morning and afternoon drive time. Currently, Clifton is the final destination for approximately 35,000 cars per day--but remember, it's not just Clifton we're talking about. There are also the feeder roads to consider; anyone who drives to work on Houston Mill can attest that the road is virtually at capacity during rush hour. No matter how good our doctors are, it doesn't help anyone if patients can't get here to be treated.

So what should the Woodruff Health Sciences Center and Emory Healthcare leadership do? First and foremost, we must put all of our cards on the table. We must not only keep an eye on the near term, but we must also focus on the long term. Everyone who has a stake in this issue must have his or her voice heard, either collectively or individually.

Second, as much as we can, we must approach this issue with open minds. All of us have preconceived notions and emotions, pro or con. We must be rational and not have unrealistic expectations for county and state governments to fix our problems. We must stay grounded in the potential and limits of mass transportation. We must try to envision what Emory Healthcare needs to be like in 30 to 50 years.

Compromise may be the order of the day. Maybe we move some operations and keep others here (but let's not forget the Emory Clinic North experience, a failed attempt in 1998 to replicate the clinic in north Alpharetta). The options could be unlimited, but we've got to keep asking the questions. We must acknowledge the importance of proximity for patient care, research and teaching, and then move forward.

I predict that our decision, either way, will be among the most important made at Emory this century. No other decision has the potential to have so much impact on medicine at Emory as we know it today. It is a time for great leadership, a time to feel the future in your soul and be guided by that feeling, a time of great opportunity.

This essay first appeared in the Winter 2004 Momentum and is reprinted with permission.