Brown U. to merge 6 doc practices into major new RI physicians group

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Brown University’s Alpert Medical School announced Thursday it has finalized a plan to merge six Rhode Island medical practices into a new umbrella group that will employ more than 500 local doctors.

The six entities combining to form the new nonprofit – Brown Physicians Inc. (BPI) – are The Neurology Foundation Inc., University Emergency Medicine Foundation, University Medicine Foundation, University Surgical Associates Inc., Brown Urology and Brown Dermatology Inc.

“We believe that collaborating with our clinical partners to more tightly integrate patient care, research and education will result in a significant and positive impact on the local community,” Brown President Christina Paxson said in a statement.

BPI will instantly become one of the largest physicians groups in Rhode Island when the new deal takes effect July 1. It’s another sign of Brown’s desire to play a more significant role in shaping the future of the state’s health sector, which is undergoing a major shift amid a wave of hospital mergers.

Brown is not paying to purchase the medical practices, but is “contributing substantial money to make the business possible,” according to Dr. Brian Zink, chair of the school’s Department of Emergency Medicine and a leader of University Emergency Medicine Foundation. The practices will pay an assessment fee to Brown’s medical school to help support its activities.

Zink argued that bringing the six organizations together under Brown will allow for more collaboration and coordination of care, a common goal in the health sector today. “We think it will be good for patients,” he said.

Zink also said BPI’s creation will help buttress academic medicine in Rhode Island at a time when future federal health funding is in doubt. “We want to make sure our academic mission is not only preserved but enhanced,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re able to support our training programs and also to do high-quality research.”

Physicians in Rhode Island have been slower than those in many other states to bring together their independent practices. “Our peers kind of shake their heads and say, ‘You’re still back in the 1980s – when are you even going to come into the 1990s?'” Zink said, chuckling. “We’re Rhode Island – it takes us a little while to get together.”

All six medical practices are currently in Rhode Island’s largest hospital system, Lifespan, though they have remained independently owned. Lifespan has had its own doctors group since 2012, Lifespan Physicians Group Inc., which a spokesman said currently employs 563 physicians, making it slightly larger than Brown’s new group.

Zink acknowledged the BPI physicians discussed the alternative of combining under the Lifespan umbrella, but said they ultimately decided to go with Brown after the university’s leaders “came in in a big way” during discussions over the last year. Dr. Jack Elias, Brown’s dean of medicine, said the initial conversations began about five years ago.

Still, Zink left the door open to Lifespan in the future, though, and noted he expected no change in the doctors’ relationship with Lifespan.

“We are continuing to have discussions with Lifespan, because we all think that integration is a right way to move, and I think it’s very likely in the next decade we’ll see even further integration beyond what we’re doing today,” he said. “If it makes sense and it’s good for patients and it preserves and enhances academic medicine, we’ll explore any options with Lifespan.”

Dr. Angela Caliendo, an executive vice-chair of medicine at Brown, will serve as BPI’s interim executive director as it gets up and running.

“Forming BPI is an important step, as it provides the foundations with the opportunity to enhance coordination of care, improve the quality of care for patients in Rhode Island and the region, better position us for success in the changing healthcare environment, and facilitate partnerships with the hospitals,” she said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook