By Liora Engel-Smith

Novant Health will partner with UNC Health to bolster medical education programs at New Hanover Regional Medical Center if the Wilmington health system chooses to affiliate, sell or merge with the Winston-Salem-based nonprofit system.

Novant and UNC signed a letter of intent that outlines enhancements to medical education and clinical services at the Wilmington health system, UNC Health and Novant said in a joint press release Thursday. Though the changes will only go into effect if New Hanover Regional selects Novant as a partner, the proposal signals Novant’s interest in adding the Wilmington facility to its portfolio.

The nonprofit, Winston-Salem-based system has numerous facilities, including in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, the Triangle, Northern Virginia, and in Brunswick County, just south of where NHRMC sits.

“Maintaining and expanding medical education at NHRMC will allow Novant Health to best serve the Wilmington community while continuing to build the pipeline of physician talent for North Carolina,” said Carl S. Armato, president and CEO for Novant Health in, Thursday’s press release.

In its regular meeting Thursday night, New Hanover Regional’s Partnership Advisory Group, a 21-member body in charge of vetting proposals for the future of the hospital, voted unanimously to deliver the letter of intent to the county and New Hanover Regional. The advisory group deliberated for 2.5 hours in a closed session but did not discuss the proposal in the public portion of the meeting.

The advisory group can only vet and recommend proposals, but the final decision on New Hanover Regional’s future rests with the county board of commissioners.

A spokeswoman from Novant said on Thursday that the exact details of the partnership and its effects on medical education at New Hanover Regional are still being hashed out. She declined to share the letter of intent with NC Health News, but Thursday’s press release said that the enhancements will focus in part on the Wilmington hospital’s pediatrics program and “other service lines as appropriate.”

In recent months, New Hanover Regional, the largest county-owned hospital in North Carolina, has explored its options, up to and including the sale of the facility to another health system. The decision to start the exploratory process drew fire from community members at public meetings on the topic and has led to the forming of a community opposition group known as Save Our Hospital.

New Hanover Regional officials, for their part, said a partnership of some kind could benefit the 647-bed facility and the community it serves. In January, the Partnership Advisory Group solicited proposals on the hospital’s future from 29 organizations. The advisory group later winnowed the proposals it received down to six finalists: Atrium Health, Duke Health, HCS HealthCare, HealthSpan/Bon Secours Mercy Health, Novant Health and UNC Health.

Earlier this month, the advisory group narrowed its option to three contenders: Duke Health, Novant and UNC Health. In selecting these finalists, the advisory group did not eliminate the other three contenders outright but instead chose to deepen its inquiries on Duke, Novant and Atrium Health’s proposals.

But the Partnership Advisory Group effectively passed on studying UNC’s offer in detail, spurring concerns that New Hanover Regional’s relationship with Chapel Hill-based system and its medical school may be affected negatively. The letter of intent seeks to address some of these concerns by promising to focus on medical education at New Hanover Regional in partnership with UNC and its medical school.

A spokesman from New Hanover Regional referred questions on the announcement to UNC Health and Novant.

“We feel very good about a partnership between UNC Health / [School of Medicine] and Novant,” a UNC Health spokesman in an email on Thursday. “Together, we offer New Hanover Regional Medical Center and southeastern North Carolina the optimal partner in both clinical operations and medical education. UNC School of Medicine’s participation in the partnership with Novant is consistent with the original proposal we submitted.”

But the spokesman said he’d rather not speculate on what might happen if New Hanover Regional passes on UNC Health’s proposal.

When asked if the relationship between New Hanover Regional and UNC would be negatively affected by not being selected, he added, UNC is looking forward to the partnership with Novant.

“The southeastern region of North Carolina will be the ultimate beneficiary of this collaboration as it will provide economic stimulation while substantially increasing rural health care delivery capabilities,” he added.

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Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...