MCG Moves Forward with Efforts to Send More Primary Care Doctors to Rural Georgia

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Since University of Augusta President Brooks Keel first spoke about the initiative during a visit to Statesboro two years ago, the university and its Medical College of Georgia have continued their efforts to speed up more doctors in rural and underserved areas of the state.

Keel, Ph.D., who was president of Georgia Southern University for five and a half years before moving to Augusta University in 2015, was back in Statesboro for another visit on Thursday.

The overall statistics on the challenge he described in an interview in the fall of 2019, the shortage of doctors in Georgia and especially in its rural areas, have not changed much. With 24,194 practicing physicians, Georgia has 230 physicians per 100,000 population, according to the latest update of the Georgia Board of Health Care Workforce dashboard. That compares to 277.8 physicians per 100,000 nationwide in a November 2019 Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, report that ranked Georgia 39th out of 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico in terms of physician availability. In 2019, eight of Georgia’s rural counties did not have a doctor.

“I don’t think that has changed much,” Keel said. “The last time I looked, there were nine counties in the state of Georgia that did not have a practicing doctor. It changes from year to year, but has hovered around eight or nine over the years. last two years.

A 3-year medical school

But the Medical College of Georgia has taken some steps it described earlier that weren’t planned until two years ago.

As of the arrival of medical students at its Augusta campus in June 2020, MCG tightened its traditional core curriculum from four years to three years, creating the MCG 3+ program. Traditionally, after four years in medical school, entry-level physicians enter a residency program, for supervised experience in treating patients, which lasts at least three years for primary care areas and longer for some specialties.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Keel said. “Instead of having a fourth year of medical school, they will go straight into the residency program in that fourth year, which means they will start practicing medicine a year earlier than they are. ‘would have done before we changed the program, and that eliminates 25% of the debt, which is also an important part of this program. “

Reduce debt

Even at MCG, which as Georgia’s only public medical school has lower tuition fees than those affiliated with private universities, a medical student can rack up significant debt, he admits. An October 2020 AAMC report said 75% of public medical school graduates surveyed nationwide had student debt, with an average debt of $ 199,391, while 71% of graduates private medical schools had an average student debt of $ 219,829. Keel had mentioned a typical range of $ 150,000 to $ 200,000.

“For a young student who graduates and has to carry that kind of debt with him, there isn’t a lot of incentive for him to open a practice in a part of the state where the mix of payers isn’t very good, ”Keel said.

In other words, indebtedness can be a barrier for physicians who wish to practice primary care in rural and underserved areas and a motivation for them to choose more remunerative places and specialties.

Thus, the other strand of MCG’s initiative is a scholarship program offering free tuition to physicians who commit to practice medicine, especially primary care medicine, in rural or underserved areas of Georgia.

“We will completely eliminate this debt for them to make it much easier for them to want to practice in rural and underserved areas of Georgia, and we believe this will go a long way to not only placing them there, but keeping them there. . in the communities in which they begin to serve, ”said Keel.

The goal of this program is to eventually enroll 50 medical students who both engage and are chosen by competitive examination. Students would in effect be forgiven for one year of tuition fees, up to a total of three years, for each year they serve in the rural or underserved area. Those who leave for other work before completing their engagement should pay the difference in tuition fees.

$ 10.4 million in endowment

In 2020, Peach State Health Plan, a care management organization that is a subsidiary of Centene Corporation, donated $ 5.2 million to launch this program. This was then matched by the Georgia General Assembly with $ 5.2 million in state funding approved during the 2021 session. Thus, MCG now has an endowment of $ 10.4 million. for this MCG 3+ Scholars program.

The first cohort of eight students applied and were selected from students already at MCG and entered the program in June 2020.

“We now have eight students who have committed to this particular program, and when they graduate, now in two years – they’ve already been in the program for a year – they’ll be in a residency program in the state of. Georgia and then they will commit to serving in rural or underserved parts of Georgia year after year for the amount of tuition we have covered, ”Keel said.

Other routes

Meanwhile, all students who started at MCG’s Augusta campus as of June 2020 are now on the shorter three-year program. There are a number of avenues they can choose to do in their fourth year, including taking specialized medical courses, earning a master’s degree in a field such as business, or devoting the year to research. Stepping directly into a primary care residence is just one of the options.

Currently, the 3+ program only applies to the MCG Augusta campus, which has 200 first year students. MCG also operates through an Augusta University-Georgia University medical partnership campus in Athens, which so far maintains a traditional four-year medical degree program.

MCG also has offshore campuses in Savannah, Brunswick, Albany and Rome and is developing an offshore campus in Atlanta and a partnership with a hospital in Dalton. These provide more practice sites for medical students working with patients, Keel said.

Prior to the interview, Executive Vice President of Administration at Keel and Augusta University, Russell Keen, and Associate Vice President of Government Relations, Margie Miller, met with Senator Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, and Representative Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet. They and House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington and Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, had all supported funding for the MCG 3+ Scholars program.

“It’s great to just visit lawmakers and say thank you,” Keel said.


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