About halfway through his talk before the Flagler Tiger Bay Club over lunch today, David Szymanski, the CEO of the University of North Florida’s MedNexus–the emerging medical education innovator with a foothold in Palm Coast–borrowed an ecumenical parable from the Vatican to explain the Mednexus concept.
“So how does it work?” Szymanski said, flashing a picture of the late John Paul II who was, like Szymanski, of Polish extraction. He told the story the Vatican is fond of telling–of how John Paul found himself at an enormous door he couldn’t open in the Basilica of St. Paul in January 2000, until he was joined by the heads of the Orthodox and Anglican churches. Together, apparently for the first time in church history, the three and their six hands opened the door. The Vatican’s account haloes the moment in divine meaning, as “sign with a deep overtone.”
Szymanski didn’t go that far, his parable quickly retreating back to the pragmatism of what’s being achieved in Palm Coast and Jacksonville through a state-funded initiative intended to graduate more nurses, social workers, ethicists and other health care-related professionals to fill a rapidly growing need. Szymanski launched the initiative when he was president of UNF, but it was touch and go for a while. “And I’m telling you, when you think about it, it takes six teams, it takes multiple hands to accomplish something, so when we talk about how MedNexus works, it really is about six hands. It’s about academics, it’s about government, and it’s about healthcare providers, and people in that field.”
A slide he displayed actually showed the equivalent of more than six hands, including Palm Coast government, which contributed $1.5 million to MedNexus’s Palm Coast operation; Rep. Paul Renner, the lawmaker who first urged Szymanski to have a look at Palm Coast when Szymanski didn’t know where Palm Coast was, and who has shepherded the (so far) $6 million in state funds toward MedNexus; AdventHealth Palm Coast and other hospitals in the region, where MedNexus students are getting hands-on training, including at a simulation lab to be provided by the hospital; Daytona State College, which has its own nursing program, and the Flagler County school system and its health care “flagship” programs, where students get a sense of what it would be like to have a career in that field. Not included in the slide, but a late-coming partner: Johns Hopkins University, a world leader in health care education.
“Our formative question is how can we solve this shortage in nurses,” he said. He didn’t want just another department. He wanted a new concept. “It’s always good to think big.”
In the Q&A portion of the talk Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin asked Szymanski what he imagined Palm Coast would or should look like in 10 years, if someone were to Google the city. “Who are we, what are we from your perspective?” the mayor asked. Szymanski said two elements would be prominent: health care and the tech sector, if the city could build on both. He cited Coastal Cloud, the Hammock tech company, as an example. The two could converge.
MedNexus would build on the health care component. (Alfin in a brief interview said the program Szymanski he talked about is a lot bigger than Town center.”)
When first unveiled two years ago the initiative was to seek $24 million, later broken down over several years. The program in Palm Coast opened with 50 students this fall. They take in-person and remote classes, the in-person part taking place at the City Centre building in Town Center, within sight of City Hall. The university has a three-year lease on that space. Students are on a Tuesday-to-Friday schedule this semester, going to Monday-through-Friday in spring. But in answer to a question from the audience, Szymanski downplayed the likelihood that MedNexus would have its own building any time soon.
“The honest part of it is, when you think about education today it’s not as much brick and mortar as it was, it’s not as much requiring of space that you need to build out,” he said, especially when partnership, including with Daytona State College’s spaces, are available.
At the next legislative session, it won’t be Szymanski who makes the pitch for the next package of state aid to the Board of Governors–who in turn submit the plan to the Legislature–but his successor at UNF, Interim President Pamela Chally. It’ll be a $2.8 million request, Szymanski said, describing the ask as “rather modest.”
He said the money would be steered toward scholarship, hiring more nursing faculty, and paying for a 3D printer. “We’re being realistic. We’re addressing the needs that we’ve heard advocated by our legislators as well as our communities which is celebrating nursing. The 3D-printing part of it is really something that’s on the forefront of medical care,” Szymanski said.
Johnson and Johnson, he told the Tiger Bay crowd, has a 3D printing operation whose worldwide headquarters are on the campus of UNF in Jacksonville. “It’s a huge burgeoning field,” he said, from prosthetics to reproducing organs to “bio-regeneration” to creating artificial lungs.
“Maybe there’s things that we can do that are phenomenal with respect to 3D printing. And so when we talk about MedNexus we’re talking about talent development thought leadership as well as medical invention,” he said.
There’ll also be a business component to the initiative (Szymanski himself being a business professor), health care administration accounting for over half the staff of hospitals.
“What’s next for MedNexus? Now this is the fun part about it: I have no idea,” Szymanski said. “There’s not a playbook and there’s not a direct path.” He left the audience on reams of metaphors (“hardware with lots of axes,” “the opportunity to grow with with Palm Coast,” as you attract new businesses as we’re talking about our table, you know some of the new businesses that you’re attracting and growing”) but nothing quite more tangible than the programs that have launched so far. More assuredly, Szymanski said there would be no lack of students enrolling in MedNexus, whether from Flagler schools or from undergraduates looking for graduate degrees. “There’s a sizable pipeline,” he said. It’s constrained only by the number of clinical positions at the hospital. But as the hospital grows–a second AdventHealth hospital is under construction, on Palm Coast Parkway–MedNexus will grow.