South Georgia getting first four-year medical school

A Philadelphia-based medical college that already has a campus in Gwinnett County is expanding to South Georgia.

The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) broke ground late last month on a 75,000-square-foot building in Moultrie, Ga., that will become the first four-year medical school in a region suffering from a chronic shortage of physicians.

“We as an institution have a commitment to primary care in under-served communities, both rural and urban,” PCOM President Dr. Jay Feldstein said. “When you get students to go to local colleges, medical schools and, particularly, into local residence programs … 70 percent to 80 percent stay in the areas where they do residencies.”

The doctor shortage in South Georgia and other rural parts of the state is well documented. Nearly 90 percent of the state’s 159 counties are below the state average for doctors per 100,000 residents, while 65 counties have fewer than 53 doctors per 100,000, according to the Georgia Area Health Education Centers, a statewide network coordinated by Augusta University.

In 2015, nine counties in Georgia had no physicians, 64 had no pediatricians, 75 had no general surgeons and 79 had no ob-gyns, the Georgia Board of Physician Workforce found.

Dr. Frank McDonald, a Gainesville neurologist and president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said young physicians establishing practices tend to avoid rural Georgia.

“People in rural areas tend not to have private insurance, and Medicaid payments are so low, [physicians] have a hard time making a living,” he said.

The General Assembly took on the physician shortage this year by passing rural health-care legislation that arose from recommendations by a committee of lawmakers that held hearings across the state last year. Among other things, the bill will create a grant program to help physicians willing to practice in medically under-served communities pay their insurance premiums.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce supported the bill as a way to bolster rural Georgia’s economic competitiveness by improving access to quality health care.

“As an advocate for rural prosperity, we support effective measures that provide the best possible health access using new and existing resources,” chamber President and CEO Chris Clark said after Gov. Nathan Deal signed the measure May 3.

While the new college initially will focus on training primary-care physicians, Feldstein said PCOM plans to expand its offerings to physician assistant training, behavioral health and physical therapy. The Moultrie campus also will conduct outreach programs with middle schools and high schools in the region, he said.

“You need to develop the pipeline, so students see there’s an opportunity to go to medical school in their own community,” he said.

Feldstein said the college expects to open for the fall semester next year with 55 students.

Dave Williams  – Staff Writer, Atlanta Business Chronicle

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