Drexel University and Tower Health plan to open a four-year branch campus for Drexel's College of Medicine, already one of the nation's largest by enrollment, near Reading Hospital in West Reading, the two nonprofits announced Monday. The inaugural class of first-year students is expected to start in the 2020-21 school year, pending accreditation.

The medical school deal follows Tower's dramatic expansion through the $418 million acquisition of five community hospitals in Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties, a moved designed in part to draw patients to Reading Hospital, which is among Pennsylvania's largest, for high-end, complex care.

"They clearly have an aspiration to be an academic medical center. That's where Tower Health wants to go, and they need an academic partner to do so," Drexel president John Fry said. "Second, we both agree that there is a huge challenge in the increased demand for physicians."

Fry said that for Drexel, adding a campus in Berks County will help the university institution expand its influence in the region and give it needed capacity for training more doctors.

For the current academic year, Drexel University College of Medicine received 13,833 applications,and accepted 707, of whom 260 enrolled. "I'd love to get 30 or 40 more kids into every class, because God knows they are there, and they're qualified, but we just don't have capacity for them," Fry said.

In adding a branch campus, Drexel joins Temple University's medical school, which has a branch at St. Luke's in Bethlehem. The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine also has had a branch campus near Atlanta, since 2005 and it plans to open a third location, in southwestern Georgia, next year.

Nationwide, there are 115 regional medical school campuses, identified by the latest survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges, said John Prescott, that group's chief academic officer. That number includes four-year branches, plus places where students spend just their first two years or their second two years of medical school.

Prescott, who was previously dean of the West Virginia School of Medicine, said achieving the status of academic medical center can help attract physicians and have a broader impact on the community. Those benefits are legitimate, but it's not easy. "You're talking about different cultures, and whenever you talk about a cultural shift, that's a tough thing to do," Prescott said.

Clint Matthews, president and chief executive of Tower, said a big driver in the 50-50 partnership with Drexel is the need for physicians in Tower's service area, where 1.5 million people live. "This gives us the opportunity to train the physicians that will practice within our region," he said.

Drexel and Tower are still looking for a location for the school, which has been under discussion for more than a year. Matthews declined to provide an estimate of how much it will cost to open the campus, where 40 students are expected to start in August 2020. Before that, third- and fourth-year students will start clinical training at Reading Hospital.

Drexel remains committed to its academic and teaching relationships with Hahnemann University Hospital and St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, which are under new ownership, said Daniel V. Schidlow, dean of Drexel's College of Medicine.