Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Atrium Health will build a multi-faceted tower and an eye institute in Winston-Salem, the not-for-profit systems said Monday.

The tower would house the emergency department, operating rooms and intensive care unit services and will be built on the main Ardmore campus atop an existing parking deck. It will feature new operating rooms with adult intensive care units, along with radiology, pathology and other related services.

The eye institute would be built in the southern district of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter with sites under evaluation. The southern district is anchored primarily by the Center for Design Innovation.

The facility plan requires Federal Trade Commission approval.

Wake Forest Baptist did not disclose a start date or a cost estimate for either project. The eye institute "will be funded through philanthropic gifts, which will be matched by funds provided by the proposed strategic combination," Wake Forest Baptist said.

Formal agreement steps

The projects were disclosed after the systems reported to their bondholders Thursday that they had taken a formal step toward jointly “creating a next-generation academic health-care system.” 

The systems announced April 10 they had signed a memorandum of understanding. On Thursday, they executed an agreement they called “one more step in a series of milestones.”

The systems said in the bondholders' notice that their proposed strategic combination is projected to be complete by March 31. 

Monday's news release provided guidance that the regulatory review process "is expected to be complete by or before early 2020." The goal is to debut the Charlotte medical school campus in 2021 or 2022.

Wake Forest Baptist estimates the emergency department had nearly 230,000 patient visits in 2018.

The tower will "modernize and fulfill a long-term need for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center as the primary referral center in western North Carolina for trauma and burn patients," according to the joint statement.

The eye institute is geared toward enhancing services by its ophthalmology department. Wake Forest Baptist will move existing from the main campus to the institute.

Terry Williams, chief strategy officer for Wake Forest Baptist, said Wake Forest Baptist's current eye services "are the largest and most advanced referral center in western North Carolina with 95,000 annual patient visits."

System officials have already started to discuss parking issues that will come with tearing down the parking deck, Williams said. 

"I think naturally that would be an issue we would need to address before construction on the tower begins," Williams said. "Parking and ease of access for our patients is always top of mind. We’re actually in the process of converting the space on Cloverdale across from Walgreen’s into staff parking. And keep in mind that shifting 95,000 patient visits from the Winston-Campus to the new Eye Institute in Innovation Quarter will help."

The systems said in a question-and-answer post April 10 “the goal is that, upon signing a definitive agreement together, Atrium Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wake Forest University will immediately convene a team to start the work of bringing a modern, innovative, cost-effective and sustainable top-20 school of medicine to the Charlotte area.”

However, they have not ruled out a much larger collaboration during their period of exclusive negotiations. Williams said that "exact decisions about co-located services or buildings have not yet been determined."

Medical school in Charlotte

The commitment to a second Wake Forest School of Medicine campus would fulfill a long-sought goal of Atrium officials and Charlotte civic and elected officials: to have a medical school in Charlotte. 

"We have a bold vision to combine our respective talents and create the nation's leading modern academic healthcare system," Eugene Woods, Atrium's president and chief executive, said in a statement.

"We have now taken a giant step forward in bringing that collective vision to life. Our teams cannot wait to initiate planning for the second campus of the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Charlotte in 2020, while making new investments in the research and innovation core in Winston-Salem."

Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, said the goal "has been to come together to create a new model for world-class academic healthcare in our country. I believe our strategic combination has set this worthy undertaking in motion."

The systems said in April that among their goals with their collaboration are: educating nearly 3,200 total healthcare learners across more than 100 specialized training programs each year and  investing in the Translational Research and Population Health Center in Winston-Salem that will gain access to thousands of clinical trials across the region at Atrium Health’s 39 locations.

Wake Forest Baptist has said that the medical school board and management would remain in place and that the medical school and main campus would remain in Winston-Salem.

The systems have been negotiating quietly since the announcement — though the potential partnership was put in the spotlight when Atrium executives took a tour of Wake Forest Baptist facilities, including in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, on Aug. 14.

The open-ended nature of negotiating a potential medical partnership between Wake Forest University and Atrium has raised concerns about the future of Wake Forest Baptist and its medical school in Winston-Salem.

The local concern about the Charlotte campus is that it could eventually draw resources from the Winston-Salem campus or even lure the medical school itself from Winston-Salem. Wake Forest Baptist is the largest employer in Forsyth County with more than 13,000 workers.

Baptist officials have said such scenarios were speculative and not based in fact.

Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, chief executive of Wake Forest Baptist and medical school dean, said April 10 that she and the majority of the existing medical school faculty would remain in Winston-Salem and that the Charlotte medical school would gain new faculty and utilize providers within the Atrium hospital system.

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