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UNF MedNexus: Ensuring the Future of Florida’s Healthcare

Creating pathways to jobs
Daytona State College President Tom LoBasso and former UNF President David Szymanski sign a MOU to enhance healthcare educationThe shortage of healthcare professionals in Florida is intensifying. Nursing, physical therapy, mental health counseling and data analytics are some of the disciplines in demand. In fact, 23% of Florida’s projected job growth between 2016 and 2024 will be in healthcare, or roughly 200,000 jobs.

A significant statewide concern is how to create a talent pipeline to fill those jobs. Yet, in addition to adding workers, the future of healthcare in Florida also depends on advancing medical research and innovation.

In early 2020, the University of North Florida proposed a solution. With a program named UNF MedNexus, the University hopes to link resources across county lines in a collaborative effort to expand educational programs and enhance medical research. When the state’s 2020-21 budget was passed in June, UNF received just under $6 million to create the first phase of MedNexus, the nation’s first comprehensive, university-based medical and healthcare network. What does that mean? With its academic strengths, UNF is positioned to lead the way to expand education. In addition, the University is surrounded by nationally prominent healthcare providers in Jacksonville, who are willing to serve as partners. Because of this, UNF will serve as the hub in what planners envision as a hub-and-spoke structure that will pool resources, funding, facilities and talent in neighboring counties.

Developing over a multi-year phased approach
The vision for UNF MedNexus is to grow the program in scope and impact using a multi-year, phased approach. The first phase is already underway and involves creating partnerships in order to educate additional nurses, one of the area’s most crucial needs. With UNF as the driving force, the initial funding will be used for scholarships and to add simulation labs, skills labs and teaching space.

Subsequent phases will require additional funding. The second phase, or year two, will focus on hiring key faculty, adding scholarships, building additional areas of specialization, and enhancing technology and innovation.

Launching Phase One in Flagler County
In October, UNF made its first connections outside Jacksonville with the City of Palm Coast, AdventHealth and Daytona State College. Online courses were added for the spring semester and a nursing cohort will begin this fall. UNF will also work with local secondary schools to develop career pathways from high school through job placement.

Dr. Curt Lox, dean of UNF’s Brooks College of Health, sees the Palm Coast nursing cohort as an important first step. “We are constantly being told we need more nurses,” Lox said. “Addressing this need takes a lot of time and money, both of which are in short supply. And so to have the potential to add nurses moving forward is exciting, because they are desperately needed in the field.”

This spring, the University is also working on agreements with Daytona State College to transition nursing students into UNF’s graduate programs. While developing curricula and hiring faculty and staff, the College also is considering sites to locate a new simulation center in Jacksonville, which will be vital to the success of their existing programs. “A very flexible space that will allow us to do simulated training is absolutely critical to our future and is probably the most important piece of the MedNexus initiative for the Brooks College of Health,” Lox said.

Taking first steps to advance medical research
An essential part of the overall plan is to establish partnerships with area medical research organizations to enhance healthcare in Florida. Though some aspects of the plan will unfold in later years, UNF has taken a first step in one important area: early disease detection.

For example, imagine knowing years before a tumor appears that certain cells in your body are likely to become malignant, or discovering years ahead of any symptoms that your brain is developing the proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. To accelerate this type of research, which is already being done around the world, UNF has purchased specialized equipment that soon will be moved into MSERF, the Materials Science and Engineering Research Facility on campus.

Dr. Paul Eason, the director of MSERF and a professor and associate dean of Computing, Engineering and Construction, was involved in purchasing the equipment and forging a partnership with three research hospitals in Florida: Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson Cancer Center, both in Jacksonville, and the Johns Hopkins Children’s Cancer Research Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. As Eason explained, these research hospitals have decades of archival tissue for examination, and they have agreed to collaborate with UNF.

The early disease detection technique is MALDI Mass Spectrometry, which uses a laser to identify proteins and compounds at the molecular level. Researchers have discovered that in some cancers, years before cancer can be detected in a biopsy, cells produce proteins and other compounds that can be identified as precursors to cancer formation. With MALDI MS, researchers can detect those proteins and compounds.

“If you pick up that protein as it forms in the cell, you could predict possibly five years out where a tumor would grow,” Eason said. “The technique is getting into the realm of using molecular level material science in the medical world to diagnose a condition years before a biopsy could detect it.”

For Eason, MedNexus is especially exciting because it allows the University to impact healthcare on a number of fronts. “This is going to provide unique research opportunities for faculty, experiential learning for UNF students and offer huge potential to benefit Florida residents.”


Since this article was published, an additional partnership with FSCJ was announced to further healthcare education. Learn more about UNF MedNexus and the UNF/FSCJ Partnership.