Ambition is a good thing, and there are ways in which south Louisiana has an undeniable leg up on a tough national competition: biomedical technology and services.
As Michael Hecht, of Greater New Orleans Inc., told business and education leaders last month, there are examples of places where medical care has become more than just the business of caring for patients.
He pointed to the Texas Medical Center in Houston as an example of what the New Orleans medical complex could produce. The Texas Medical Center is responsible for 222,000 jobs, $5.8 billion in annual economic impact and one-quarter of all hotel stays in Houston, he said.
By establishing itself as a destination for health care, particularly for cancer patients, Houston also has become a place where companies involved in cancer research want to set up shop. “That’s the sweet spot. That’s when you’re really making it work in terms of economic development,” Hecht said. “That’s what we want to get to.”
We would add Birmingham and cities like Cleveland in that mix, places where a combination of medical care in hospitals and specialized clinics is married to the teaching and research of academic medical centers.
But if Hecht has some good examples, we also note that they are ambitious ones.
In each case, a lot of spadework went into the development of those complexes, including long-term commitments to academics and research at state universities. Louisiana was embarked on a similar plan, but in recent years, state budget cuts compromised progress.
The challenge of morphing routine medical care into an asset in the larger knowledge economy will require collaboration among all the hospitals, old and new, and academic institutions all along the river, not just in New Orleans. Genetics and its implications for medical care — and its economic potential — requires active collaboration of scientific talent from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
There are also more prosaic elements of a medical center as an economic driver, such as transportation; a new Louis Armstrong International Airport in 2018 would be a significant benefit.
Where Hecht is exactly right is that the massive medical complex taking shape along Tulane Avenue is a significant opportunity and one that the region ought to make, as Hecht said, a catalyst for new development.
The $2 billion investment being made in the University Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center is expected to result in thousands of jobs and “really no downside” for the region, Hecht said. But there is an opportunity for something even greater, as Hecht predicted, if the players in medicine and academia can make the most of it — and those players get the support they need to make a difference.