RWJBarnabas, Rutgers solidify academic medical center partnership with $750M cancer center plan

Less than a year after announcing a $1 billion academic medical partnership, RWJBarnabas Health and Rutgers University are planning to break ground on a major cancer treatment and research facility.

As early as this summer, officials expect to begin construction on a $750 million freestanding cancer hospital in New Brunswick adjacent to the existing Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey campus.

While the specific plans are still being hammered out, the center is expected to be between 500,000 square feet and 600,000 square feet, housing between 100 and 120 inpatient cancer care beds. The pavilion will also feature outpatient services, such as for chemotherapy and radiation therapy, as well as advanced imaging and surgical services.

Further, the building will feature research laboratories, including wet labs, to enable physician-scientists to more rapidly translate scientific findings from laboratory bench to patient bedside, officials said. They also expect to have an urgent care center specific to cancer patients to help the often immunosuppressed patients avoid being mixed with the general population in emergency departments.

RELATED: With $1B partnership between RWJBarnabas and Rutgers, both realize academic health system status

"The bottom line is that this new building will be a one-stop destination for patients with a cancer diagnosis," Rutgers Cancer Institute Director Steven Libutti, M.D., who is also the senior vice president of oncology services at RWJBarnabas Health, told FierceHealthcare.

The building is being designed to enhance coordination, Libutti said. The architect on the project is HOK and the general contractor is New Brunswick Development Corporation.

“Traditionally patients would see one provider who would refer patients on to the next provider in the cycle of their care. These could be separated by time and be in different locations in the absence of coordination. Our model is: All of our providers are part of the same team," he said. "Sort of like a Lazy Susan, the patient is in the middle and our providers circle around the patient. The new facility is going to be designed in such a way to enhance that sort of team care.”

If all goes according to plan, the center should open in 2023, he said.

RELATED: Barnabas, Robert Wood Johnson merger will create giant system in New Jersey

Rutgers Cancer Institute is New Jersey's only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

At the time of the partnership announcement between RWJBarnabas and Rutgers last year, officials said RWJBarnabas would fund the construction of a new clinical and research building for the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. They also previously said funding would go toward the recruitment of leading clinical and academic leaders and faculty; building residency, training and fellowship programs; attracting Rutger's medical students to remain in New Jersey for their careers; as well as expanded access to clinical trials.

RWJBarnabas was created as the result of a 2016 merger between Barnabas Health and Robert Wood Johnson Healthcare, both large heath systems in their own right. With $712 million in annual research and development expenditures, Rutgers ranks among the nation's top public universities. 

This is part of much broader ambitions for the health system and Rutgers to establish themselves together as regional leaders and ultimately a national healthcare destination, Libutti said.

"This is a tangible demonstration of the importance of that relationship. If you look at what our shared goals are to bring outstanding healthcare to the citizens of New Jersey and to build our quality of healthcare and our technologic advances to applying and delivering healthcare to a point where we become a destination even for patients outside of New Jersey," Libutti said. "There's been this history of this notion that to get exceptional care for cancer, you have to leave New Jersey. You have to go to New York or Philadelphia. That's just clearly not so." 

The $750 million investment in cancer care is just the start for steps coming from this partnership, with additional clinical delivery and research announcements coming in behavioral health as well as the neurosciences in areas such as stroke care and neurosurgery.

"You're going to see over the next several years a number of other service line-based initiatives between the research enterprise at Rutgers and the clinical care delivery platform through RWJBarnabas Health," Libutti said. "Cancer may be first out of the gate but there are plenty of others gaining momentum as well."