Optimus Primary grants propel Muncie’s medical training programs beyond pandemic

April 16, 2021

Especially evidenced by the pandemic, there is value in having a united, collaborative network of healthcare entities within a community. Recognizing this value, Ball Brothers Foundation has been funding a strategic partnership of healthcare anchor institutions in the community since 2016. In the height of COVID-19, this partnership—Optimus Primary—continued to grow, with the foundation awarding $160,000 in funding to the program at the end of 2020. This funding aids a range of new efforts underway this spring that strengthen medical education in Muncie.

“For 95 years, Ball Brothers Foundation has operated with a mission of improving quality of life within our community; this means not just funding urgent needs of today, but also supporting long-term efforts for a greater tomorrow,” said Jud Fisher, president and CEO of Ball Brothers Foundation. “So, in addition to providing COVID-19 emergency relief grants last year, we made a strategic decision to bolster our giving toward health initiatives that strengthen Muncie’s medical community for years to come.”

As part of the recent $160,000 Optimus Primary grants, Ball Brothers Foundation awarded $40,000 each to four partners: IU School of Medicine–Muncie, Ball State University, IU Health Foundation and Ivy Tech.

As Derron Bishop, associate dean and director of Indiana University School of Medicine–Muncie, said, Muncie is one of the few places in Indiana where students can transition from high school, to undergrad, to medical school, to residency and to a board-certified health position all within one city. To expound upon this unique opportunity, part of IUSM–M’s Optimus Primary grant is to market a Bachelors-to-MD program in partnership with Ball State University.

The BMD program allows for Muncie high school students who are accepted to Ball State to become provisionally admitted to IUSM–M too, making the transition from undergraduate to medical school seamless, Bishop said.

“One of the things we know from working with consultants is that about 80% of people practice medicine within 50 miles of where they do their residency training,” Bishop said. “If we can find some of the best local talent and train them here locally, the odds that they will stay and practice here in East Central Indiana are really high.”

Ball State and IUSM–M students are both able to gain inter-professional experience at Ball State’s Healthy Lifestyle Center, a free community resource that provides students with real-world experience in working with clients.

The HLC was another recipient of last year’s round of Optimus Primary grants. The funding allows for the program to expand by including third- and fourth-year medical students who administer various health assessments and by incorporating new, formalized stigma and bias training into the curriculum.

“Similar to nutrition and exercise, medical students and health care professionals don’t have much stigma and bias training in their education. These are some things that are sort of assumed,” said Lenny Kaminsky, director of Ball State’s Fisher Institute of Health and Well-Being. The training would help students and physicians-in-training to better understand racial inequalities and their impact on the community.

Recent funding has allowed HLC not only to enhance the student side of its program, but also to expand its services offered to the community. Students work with newly obtained health assessment equipment to perform at-home sleep assessments, cardiovascular health tests, dietary assessments and more. Additionally, the latest Optimus Primary grant supports the HLC as it partners with local organizations to provide mobile and on-site services throughout the community.

“The biggest thing that we’ve been striving for all along is getting more people to take that step and start engaging with HLC for their personal health and wellbeing,” Kaminsky said. “So all these steps, in combination, are creating more access for people to get involved.”

IUSM–M and Ball State also received partner grants to fund the Village Promenade Learning Laboratory, a living-learning community for full-time IUSM–M students. The VPLL is an expansion of the existing Maplewood Mansion Laboratory, which houses IUSM students who are temporarily visiting Muncie as part of their studies.

“There was a great opportunity with the mansion and the tremendous partnership with Ball State, and that project has been successful beyond anything we thought it would be,” Bishop said. “That got us thinking: What do we do for our permanent students that are here?”

Bishop said he heard first-hand from permanent IUSM–M students that they would’ve liked to have a program similar to Maplewood available to them. When he first pitched the concept of VPLL to his students, they were unanimously in favor.

After scouting for an ideal location and quality apartments, Bishop and his team approached Ball State’s residential property management program—whose students will be managing the VPLL programming—and Village Promenade with the idea of this “medical living-learning community.”

“In a sense, if you’re an undergrad Ball State student in our BMD program, you’ll be living alongside medical school students who can more or less mentor you. And as a medical student, you’ll be living with residents who can also mentor you,” Bishop said. “The vision is to have the whole pipeline aligned there in a community—a medical living-learning community that covers everything from undergraduate all the way up to when they’re ready to become a board-certified physician.”

Optimus Primary grants fund many aspects of physician training, including residency programs. The latest round of grants included funding to IU Health Foundation for the purchase of point-of-care ultrasounds for use by residents at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital. Giving physicians access to cutting-edge technology allows them to become fully trained on the equipment, which enhances patient care down the road.

“Ultrasound used to be a very expensive technology and very large pieces of machinery, but advances in technology have allowed these to be handheld devices that will allow us to visualize structures that we can’t see with our own eyes and be able to more safely do procedures at the bedside,” said Dr. J. Matthew Neal, executive director of academic affairs at IU Health Ball Memorial and assistant dean IUSM. “These are things that can really enhance patient care and do so quickly. When we can get information at the bedside, it helps decrease cost, it helps enhance care, and it helps decrease patient length of stay.”

IU Health Foundation’s grant also included funding to enhance wellness programs for residents. While physician burnout has long been a pressing issue, the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it additional stressors for healthcare workers, further highlighting the importance of suicide prevention training and an attention to wellness.

“Physician burnout is a big problem,” Neal said. “Suicide rates among physicians are among the highest among professions. We’re trying to provide better ways for physicians to take care of themselves and their own health, and I think patients are better satisfied when their doctors are happy.”

The pandemic has also emphasized the need for trained sonographers. An Optimus Primary grant to Ivy Tech is designed to support a new Diagnostic Medical Sonography associate degree program at Ivy Tech—one of the only programs of its kind across Indiana.

“With the onset of COVID, the need for sonographers, especially in the respiratory department, has become more evident,” said Qiana Clemens, executive director of Ivy Tech Foundation. “The need for qualified healthcare professionals to be able to hit the ground running is critical. The pandemic helped us realize our vulnerability, but we have a tool—which is education—to be able to combat a number of medical issues that have risen to the surface as a result of this pandemic.”

Not only will the sonography program help to improve health outcomes in the region, but it will provide economic benefits.

“The potential earnings our Ivy Tech graduates can make would significantly change their lives,” Clemens said. “Upon graduating, our students become high-wage earners who, in turn, reinvest in our community, which ultimately helps to propel our community forward.”

In fact, all Optimus Primary programs work to boost the local economy in addition to community health outcomes. As Bishop explained, every physician who establishes a practice generates six to seven jobs and approximately $300,000 in regional tax revenue, on average. By enhancing physician training and recruitment efforts, Optimus Primary is working to keep this economic benefit within Muncie and East Central Indiana. And there’s a more indirect economic impact too, Bishop said.

“If we can have a healthy workforce, businesses are likely to locate here. With a healthy population, people will want to live here and businesses want to invest here,” Bishop said. “All of this is a long-term investment. It’s not an easy task, and it’s not a one- or five-year project. And that’s where Ball Brothers Foundation has been helpful—they are letting us try a lot of different things in order to see that long-term vision of having a healthier population in East Central Indiana.”

Optimus Primary connects healthcare organizations in and around Muncie not just to improve the community’s overall health outcomes, but also to establish Muncie as one of the state’s leading medical training destinations.

To learn more about the Ball Brothers Foundation, visit