Forty first-year medical students began classes at the brand-new Drexel University College of Medicine at Tower Health in Wyomissing earlier this month, a move the chairman of Berks Alliance called “a game changer.”
John P. Weidenhammer said the new school will benefit Greater Reading in many ways, including economically and by increasing the area’s chances of having physicians remain with Tower Health after completing medical training.
“We know there are predictions of a nationwide, and probably global, shortage of physicians,” Weidenhammer said during a virtual meeting this week sponsored by the Berks Alliance, a collaboration of some of Berks County’s largest employers. “But it’s known that many medical students remain in the areas where they attended medical school, and that could be a great benefit to Reading and Berks County.”
Dr. Karen Restifo, regional vice dean of Drexel University College of Medicine at Tower Health who oversaw the launching of the medical school’s campus, said the school is built to handle 100 first-year students and 100 second-year students each year. At present there are only first-year students in the building. As those students advance to their second year, another first-year class will be admitted to the Wyomissing campus.
Some third and fourth-year Drexel medical students have already been assigned to Reading Hospital and are living in the Reading area as they complete their rotations. Students who start out at the Wyomissing campus will complete all four years of their schooling in Wyomissing and West Reading, where Reading Hospital is located. The school and the hospital are about a mile apart.
Drexel University College of Medicine also has a campus in the East Falls section of Philadelphia that 360 students attend.
Students are settling into both the state-of-the-art school and the Wyomissing, West Reading and Reading communities. During orientation earlier this month, medical students worked with local artists to paint panels of a 45-foot-tall mural sponsored by ruOKBerks?, the Berks County Suicide Task Force.
When finished, the mural will be displayed on Threshold Rehabilitation Services’ Mosaic House in Reading.
Community service is highly encouraged among Drexel students, Restifo said, and students at the new school are eager to help in Berks County.
“One of the hallmarks of Drexel is that we have a lot of service built into our curriculum, and we’re serious about that,” she noted. “We are here to help.”
Drexel students, faculty and staff appreciate the warm welcome they’ve received since arriving in Berks County, she said. A sign greeting them was hung across Penn Avenue in West Reading and some area stores and restaurants are offering discounts for students.
“We’ve gotten a lot of support from Tower Health and local businesses and community members,” Restifo said. “It’s been fantastic.”
A tight housing market has created some challenges for students looking for affordable living space, she said, but most have found places to live in the Wyomissing area.
Earlier this month, West Reading Mayor Andrew Kearney and Wyomissing Mayor Fred Levering addressed the issue of housing within the boroughs. Kearney said townhomes are under construction in the area of Tulpehocken Avenue, near the medical school, and Levering said more rental units are in the works in Wyomissing.
Restifo encouraged the effort to make additional housing available, as larger groups of students will be moving to the area in the future.
“It would make sense for someone who has the means to do so to develop an apartment building or someplace for these students to live,” she said.
Restifo said Drexel is excited at the prospect of a Reading area-based medical school, as students will benefit from the diversity that exists in the area. Reading Hospital serves patients facing many different conditions and offers a range of specialty care centers, including the McGlinn Cancer Institute, Miller Regional Heart Center, a Level 1 trauma center, emergency department and a maternity center with the region’s only Level III neonatal intensive care unit.
“That diversity at those different levels is exceedingly attractive to our students in Reading,” Restifo said.
Construction of the medical school started in June 2019 and was completed in May 2020, with LF Driscoll Co. Bala Cynwyd serving as general contractor. Drexel University College of Medicine occupies the first four floors of the six-story building, with the additional space available for other tenants.
In addition to classrooms, the medical college features 12 clinical skills exam rooms, an anatomy laboratory, large classrooms, small group study rooms, a central lobby with a two-story foyer, and five simulated patient rooms, including one for operating room simulations.
The building was carefully planned with both current and future students in mind. Except for small things like realizing a need for bike racks and a lack of microwave ovens in the building, everyone is well pleased with its design and function, Restifo said.
While college officials are currently concentrating on curriculum, they will be open in the future to discussing partnerships and collaborations with local organizations and businesses.
“Right now, we need to be sure the curriculum is done and done well,” Restifo said. “And then we definitely will branch out and welcome the opportunity to discuss partnerships.”