Medicine might drive area's economy in the future
GRAND RAPIDS â€” The West Michigan regional economy has been defined by the lumber, furniture and manufacturing industries during the past century and half.
Over the next half-century, West Michigan’s economy might be led by health care and the life sciences, a panel of industry leaders told a recent business policy conference.
“We are at a defining point in our history, like the lumber barons of the past,” David VanAndel — chairman and CEO of the VanAndel Institute in Grand Rapids — told the West Michigan Regional Policy Conference last week.
“I think this is a changing moment,” the head of the cancer research center established by his family’s philanthropy said. “We are becoming a regional spot for health care and life science research.”
Health care industry issues
â€¢ Continued development of a seamless computer health-record system throughout the region.
â€¢ Increasing the supply of new nurses into the regional health care systems through partnerships with West Michigan educational institutions.
â€¢ Instituting the “personal medical home” concept, in which everyone is assigned a primary care physician and a hospital-based health care system.
â€¢ Increasing pay for primary care physicians; the region has a shortage that is likely to worsen, especially as baby boomer doctors retire.
â€¢ Integrating more physician assistants, certified nursing assistants and nurse midwives in the practice of medicine.
â€¢ Ongoing work of preventative health care targeted at lifestyle issues of diabetes, obesity and tobacco use.
Grand Rapids and its “medical mile” up the Michigan Avenue hill from the heart of the downtown riverfront are driving the region headlong into the “new economy” sector of health and life sciences.
Construction crews continue to build what has been $1 billion worth of urban redevelopment in downtown Grand Rapids since 1990. The major health and life sciences developments propelling the entire region include Spectrum Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, the Michigan State University Medical School and the continued expansion of the VanAndel Institute.
“Our future depends on getting this right,” said Roger Spoelman, president of Mercy Health Systems in Muskegon, describing the fast-paced developments in the West Michigan health-care industry.
The Grand Rapids medical developments will have spinoff effects throughout the West Michigan region, Spoelman argued during a two-hour panel discussion of industry leaders.
“There is a spill-over into Muskegon,” Spoelman said of new opportunities for Mercy Health to recruit top medical talent from around the country. “We can now cast a wider net as we recruit.”
The significance of the health-care industry in West Michigan can be seen in employment figures over the past five years. Kalamazoo and Muskegon actually have grown more in terms of health-care jobs from 2002 to 2007 than Kent County, 23 and 22 percent respectively.
The local health-care system — the hospital and all of ancillary operations from laboratory to physical therapy services and nursing homes to hospice care — has become the leading employer in many communities. That is expected to increase in the coming years as aging baby boomers continue to require more health-care services, experts say.
In Muskegon, Mercy Health and all of its affiliates today employ 5,500 people, Spoelman said. Some of those jobs are lower-paid housekeeping and food-service positions, but many more are professional and technical positions all the way up to physicians.
At the regional policy conference, Spoelman had a unique Muskegon health-care story to tell. This community has just gone through its second hospital consolidation in as many decades as the Mercy and General hospitals set the stage for Mercy-General to absorb Hackley Hospital this past year.
“The greatest benefit to the consolidation is that we will not compete with one another,” Spoelman said. “We are sitting on a major opportunity for us to rationalize health care, right size it and configure it to meet the needs up and down the Lakeshore.”
That Muskegon and its merged hospital system is making a move to be the lakeshore leader in health care are borne out by the recent employment trends.
Whereas Muskegon County has 17.8 percent of its private sector jobs in health care, Ottawa County with hospitals in Grand Haven, Holland and Zeeland has only 7.6 percent of its private sector employment in the health-care field. Ottawa County only had a 2.6 percent increase in health-care jobs from 2002 to 2007 while the other three counties soared, state employment figures show.
Hospital and health services are not the only growth potential for the region. Life sciences could become a major feature of the regional economy with jobs in bio-genetic research, pharmaceutical developments and manufacturing of everything from generic drugs to medical devices.
A San Diego-based company announced just this week a $20 million investment and potential creation of 500 jobs in Grand Rapids to expand its prenatal diagnostic testing technology.
When it comes to scientific research and medical manufacturing, Kalamazoo and Allegan counties are leading the way. With the history of the Upjohn Co. in Kalamazoo, moving forward with the current operations of the Pfizer Corp. and companies such as Stryker Corp. for medical devices and Perrigo Co. for generic drugs, life science jobs are counted in the thousands in those communities and in the mere hundreds in Muskegon and Grand Rapids.
The West Michigan health care and life sciences surge is not lost on other parts of the state or the Midwest.
“You are defining the new economy,” Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan President Daniel J. Loepp told regional business leaders. “This region is a ray of hope in a sea of despair across the state. West Michigan is a destination point for health care in a global sense.”