A somewhat unlikely source convened a new coalition that aims to make a transformational impact on the local health care system: real estate magnate Brian Eckel.
After years of serving on the former New Hanover Regional Medical Center Board of Trustees (and now the successor Novant Health local board and the system’s parent board), Eckel grew restless with diagnosing problems. He wanted solutions.
“I wasn’t a health care expert – still not a health care expert,” the co-founder of real estate firm Cape Fear Commercial said. Last September, Eckel said he was in a hospital board meeting discussing challenges with the health care staff shortages, and he found himself thinking, “What the hell can I do?”
A small group convenes
“I get to see under the hood on lots of different hospitals,” Eckel said of the board meetings. “And the challenges are immense with health care workers. It’s a national problem. It’s a problem at all the other hospitals.”
Friends and community members who knew of Eckel’s role with the hospital would reach out to tell him they were having a difficult time getting relatives seen at the hospital – “That’s a direct correlation to the employee shortage,” he said. “So I started thinking, there’s nothing I can do that I know of today. But what can we do long-term in this community?”
He began his own research, crunching numbers to determine how many nurses the local education institutions produce. Cape Fear Community College graduated 68 in 2021, after starting with an enrollment of 132, according to data shared by the college. University of North Carolina Wilmington has typically graduated 50 annually.
The numbers shocked Eckel. In one of the first meetings last year with local leaders of Novant Health, CFCC and UNCW he convened, he learned of hurdles that prevent the region from churning out more nurses: program funding, lack of clinical and educational space, limited teachers and student attrition. rates.
Quickly, he and other participants realized the coalition’s makeup ought to be expanded to include other community leaders. Eckel recalled John Gizdic, Novant Health executive vice president and chief business development officer, said in one of the first meetings, “Maybe this thing is bigger than we’re thinking.”
Gizdic suggested a long-range vision, Eckel said, that would offer middle and high school students certain benchmarks under a focused curriculum; if the students hit the particular goals, they could graduate with a scholarship to support them through college, and could enter the workforce with a high-paying local job already secured.
“It really became about solving a health care problem, but also creating economic development for these kids,” Eckel said. “The ideas started snowballing.”
Gizdic said he has known Eckel for nearly two decades and isn’t surprised at all to see him spearhead the collaborative effort. “Brian is very action-oriented,” Gizdic said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that he would be a catalyst to really trying to bring key stakeholders together to find a way that we can all continue to improve the community.”
A $2M commitment
Though still in its infancy and lacking an official name, the group did already nab a $2-million pledge from Novant Health to help accelerate its progress. It’s not clear exactly what the coalition will choose to spend the money on yet, but Gizdic said it will be attributed toward whatever is necessary to formalize and expedite its mission.
Eckel said he anticipates presenting a draft plan publicly within 90 days.
Elected officials and leaders representing local organizations – Novant Health, CFCC, UNCW, New Hanover County Schools, New Hanover County, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Liberty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Services, Cape Fear Collective and more – have participated in the informal coalition meetings thus far. .
“The good thing about the approach we’re taking is, this is really a team effort – a communitywide effort,” Gizdic said. “So there’s no one entity or organization that’s, quote, ‘leading’ this.”
The communal aspect of the effort is what makes it unique, stakeholders say.
While Gizdic said years of positive work has been ongoing in the community, “It’s really been kind of singularly focused in addressing the dominant issue at that time or from an individual facility perspective,” he said. “I think the great thing about this effort and initiative is, this is not just about one entity … This is not just about Novant Health. This is about the entire health care sector in our region and making sure we develop that pipeline and workforce for the future.”
Wilmington Chamber of Commerce CEO and president Natalie English, who has participated in coalition meetings, likened the group to a relatively recent trend in economic development in which industry comes together and “competition is left at the door.”
Locally, a recent example of this is the Cape Fear Manufacturing Partnership, a group representing more than 30 businesses as of last year. English said the health care coalition’s goals, aside from investing in scholarships, will be to address all the obstacles that prevent students from getting into seats. “We’re really grateful that Novant has stepped up and is investing in our region’s ability to address the health care workforce crisis,” she said.
Nursing student attrition is a steep obstacle CFCC faces, according to college president Jim Morton. “It’s a rigorous program,” he said. Many students enter the program believing they can maintain a full-time job, Morton said, but quickly realize they must cut their working hours, which then prompts financial strains.
CFCC can help reduce student attrition with a deepened investment in wraparound services – support areas such as providing childcare or stipends – to help them get through school, Morton said. “That could go a long way,” he said.
A new nursing and allied health campus – a separate pending transaction orchestrated by Eckel – at 319 N. Third St. could help CFCC triple its nursing graduate class. Morton said the new facility could also house other college office space to help make room for a drop-in daycare – a high-need service that could greatly benefit students who may otherwise struggle to keep up with school requirements.
Coalition members weren’t involved in the pending building acquisition; however, conversations from the meetings prompted Eckel to act, he said. Though the pending building purchase has the potential to make a dent in the workforce issues locally, Gizdic said the coalition’s dream is far grander.
“This is so much more and so much larger than a building,” he said. “We’re talking about the future of our community here, and the future workforce in health care for our community to help meet the needs of our citizens. The building purchase is really a tactic and an enabler of part of this vision.”
Eckel said the group is specifically targeting goals outlined by the New Hanover Community Endowment, the nonprofit that originated last year with the sale of NHRMC to Novant Health. This endowment manages $1.25 billion and can distribute up to 4% of its value to local nonprofits annually. “It aligns perfectly with their vision and focus,” Eckel said of the coalition’s vision.
Gizdic addressed the possibilities the endowment could support through the coalition. “When I think about what is possible and that we actually have the opportunity to make this dream a reality because of the resources that this community is blessed to have now, it’s unlimited to me,” he said. “This is just a beginning part of leaning into achieving that vision and really laying the foundation that we can build on going forward to really create that pathway and the pipeline of our future health care workforce.”