Sun, April 21, 2024

$42 million to boost physician shortage challenges

The good news is that Georgia is growing. The bad news is the state has a huge shortage of doctors.

Dr. David Hess, Dean of the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) made that point clear in his annual State of the College address. He said Georgia currently ranks 40th in the country in the number of primary care physicians.

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“All these counties, which are blue, or yellow are short, so there’s hardly any place that has enough physicians,” he said, using a slide to demonstrate the shortages. “And even worse, if you actually look at the Georgia Report for Health Care Workforce, there are nine counties that have no physicians at all, 18 counties with no family medicine physicians, 40 counties with no internists, 65 counties with no pediatricians, 80 counties with no OB/GYNs, 80 counties with no general surgeons and 73 counties with no emergency medicine.”

Hess said that is why the Medical College of Georgia’s MCG3+ Primary Care Pathway Program, also known as the Peach State Scholarship program, is vital to increasing the number of primary care physicians graduating from medical school.

The program was financed with a $5.2 million contribution from the Peach State Health Plan in 2021. Gov. Brian Kemp (R) matched that amount. In the 2022 legislative session, Georgia lawmakers approved contributing $8.7 million. That was matched by the Medical College of Georgia Foundation.

“I think we have an endowment now of over $42 million plus an expendable fund,” Hess said. “So, $42 million of scholarship money has been raised to pay the tuition of students who graduate in three years, agreeing to do their residency in Georgia and then practice in an underserved area, which is almost all Georgia, in one of those primary care specialties.”

Gov. Kemp took note of the physician shortages in his speech to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast in January.

“No sector of our economy needs qualified workers more than healthcare,” he told the state’s business leaders. “With that in mind, my budget proposal includes $178 million for the design and construction of a dental school at Georgia Southern University. I am also proposing $50 million for a medical school at our flagship institution, the University of Georgia (UGA). This will go a long way to helping us address the medical workforce gap Georgia has struggled with for years.”

Currently, Georgia is the largest state with just one public medical college. On Feb. 13, The University System of Georgia Board of Regents approved creating the new School of Medicine in Athens.

“As a land-grant and sea-grant research university, our commitment to Georgia is unwavering, and the new University of Georgia School of Medicine will expand our positive impact on Georgians in many critical ways,” said UGA President, Jere W. Morehead. “The School of Medicine will significantly expand the pool of medical professionals in Georgia, attract more top-tier scientists and researchers to the state, and produce more physicians to serve underserved and rural Georgia communities.”

Dr. David Hess, Dean of the Medical College of Georgia

Hess said UGA has begun applying to create an independent medical school. Then, it needs approval by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. In the meantime, students will continue to enroll in MCG’s Athens campus, created by the 2009 medical partnership with UGA.

“The important thing to remember, students admitted to the medical partnership must remain MCG students until graduation. So, all of them admitted this year and next year will be our students, he explained. “The earliest inaugural class will be the fall of 2027, or fiscal year 2028. We will continue to matriculate 60 students at the medical partnership in Athens until they receive accreditation.”

The new dental school will be constructed at the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University in Savannah. It will be connected to the Dental College of Georgia at MCG.

Hess said last year’s partnership with Marietta-based Wellstar is providing the financial boost MCG needed.

“They’re leasing the hospital and the buildings for the board of regents,” he said. “It’s not a sale, they don’t own us, they’re managing our health system, that’s very important. Over 10 years, they’re going to put $1.1 billion, some of that is in capital, some going to build the Columbia County Hospital. Then, they’re assuming about $300 million of debt, and then importantly, to stabilize us, we get $13 million, roughly admission support, that the hospital sends over to us.”

Hess said the impact of the partnership was seen within a month. He said MCG’s bond rating went from B-minus, which is not investment grade, to A-plus.

Hess credited outgoing Augusta University President, Dr. Brooks Keel, with overseeing the Wellstar-MCG partnership. Keel, who became president in 2015, will retire at the end of the current academic year.

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