Health Care Plays Key Role In Economic Development

Too often, we perceive that major medical advances are made first in Boston, and eventually trickle west. But as health care becomes a greater factor in the economic health of Western Mass., that perception is one that is in need of re-evaluation.


Health care is now one of the most prominent industries in Western Mass., and arguably the most promising in terms of economic development — and job growth for the Pioneer Valley.

Just last month, Holyoke Health Center Inc. announced plans to resume its $20 million renovation of a downtown block (see story, page 12) with the goal of creating an expansive health care plaza. In Springfield, a group of investors has already completed the renovation of two former factory buildings in the city’s North End, and have plans on the drawing board for a third, to establish a bustling medical community.

These developments are among the many visible signs of economic progress within the region, spurred by the vast potential of the health care industry.

But positive developments are happening in quieter ways as well, and perhaps it’s time that more attention is paid to the behind-the-scenes work of the region’s medical professionals, particularly in the area of medical research.

Economists tout the benefit of academic and medical research as one avenue toward sustained, steady growth within a given region. Studies involving nationally or globally pressing issues attract students as well as professionals to the communities in which they are performed, and moreover, call attention to those communities as progressive research centers.

Indeed, local medical centers, colleges, and other organizations are already aware of the positive effects that expanded research studies could have on the local economy and are taking steps to capitalize on such pursuits. UMass President Jack Wilson, for instance, hopes to double the university’s research grants from $300 million to $600 million in the next five years, in part to capitalize on the booming biomedical business across the country and foster economic development not only locally, but across the state as well.

What’s more, some area facilities are already at the forefront of specialized medical research, perhaps with more altruistic intent, but similar potential for the overall economic development in Western Mass. For example, CRI West (the Community Research Initiative), profiled in The Healthcare News in February, is one of three such research centers across the state, and not only participates in worldwide trials of new drugs for the treatment of HIV and AIDS, but also provides care, often using those brand-new drugs and drug combinations, to treat the HIV-positive population of Western Mass.

Similarly, Baystate Medical Center, the western campus for Tufts University Medical School, is currently involved in a spermicide study (see story, page 19) that could help to lower HIV rates around the world.

Dr. Ronald Burkman, chair of Baystate’s OB/GYN department, shares Wilson’s view that research leads not only to new medical discoveries and advances in public health, but to the recruitment and retention of the best and brightest medical students, physicians, professors, and scientists. Medical facilities will eventually be able to utilize the expertise and clout of noted professionals to conduct various studies and trials, and begin to garner more notoriety for those studies.

That, in turn, will lead to the improvement of the region’s bottom line; with a marketing pitch like ‘home to cutting-edge medical research’ added to the list of selling points for Western Mass., more new jobs and continued growth of specific industry sectors, or clusters, will follow suit.

Boston is undoubtedly the medical research capital of New England, but Western Mass. is not as far behind as some might think. And as more health-related building projects change the economic landscape of the region, an area medical office or lab could soon be on the cusp of changing the world.

That possibility cannot be ignored.