Augusta University President Brooks Keel (from left), Rome retired radiologist Dr. Dan Hanks and Medical College of Georgia Dean David Hess briefed Rome leaders this week on plans for a major effort to get more doctors into rural areas of Georgia and get them there with less debt coming out of medical school.

The Medical College of Georgia is proposing to shake-up 191 years of medical education history and tradition as part of a plan to help get more doctors into rural areas of the state while at the same time doing something to reduce the amount of debt young physicians graduate with.

As the seventh class of third-year medical students gets settled in at the Northwest Clinical Campus of the Medical College of Georgia – Augusta University in Rome earlier this month, leaders of the college visited Rome this week to show their support for the local program and it’s new affiliate in Dalton.

Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel and MCG Dean David C. Hess have launched the “Three Plus” program.

“There’s about 12 medical schools in the country that do a three-year medical school,” Hess said. “To do this, to have a three-year and four-year curriculum in parallel, it becomes complicated. You’ve got to have a common curriculum, so we’ve changed our whole curriculum around.”

It will involve three years in medical school, followed by a residency in primary care which would include general surgery and OB-GYN.

“If you do one of those programs you could start the first year of residency in normally what would be your fourth year,” Hess said.

The hook, according to the dean, is that the residency would be done in the state of Georgia at one of the MCG partnership residency programs, such as the Family Residency program at Floyd Medical Center.

Keel is working with legislators, part of the reason for his visit to Rome, to convince the legislature to provide the cost of the program at no charge to young doctors who would commit to serving at least six years in an under-served area of Georgia.

“By the way, that’s everything south of I-16 and lots of pockets north of I-16,” Hess said. “We think this will really have an impact.”

Right now, the number of MCG grads who do their residencies in Georgia is in the high 20% range, no more than 30%.

“One of the problems is that we don’t have enough residency slots in Georgia,” Hess said.

By expanding the number of residency programs, cutting off a year of medical school and paying their tuition, Hess believes access to health care across Georgia can be greatly enhanced.

President Keel said when many students graduate from MCG, they walk out with between $150,000 and $200,000 worth of debt.

“It’s awfully hard, especially for a young person with a family to move to Southwest Georgia ... strapped with this sort of debt to start off with, so they typically tend to practice in more populated areas where their income is going to be higher,” Keel said. “The beauty of this program here is that we’re going to eliminate that debt and it will be much easier for them financially to be willing to set up in rural Georgia.”

The curriculum change will have an impact on the longitudinal curriculum that has been offered to the third- and fourth-year medical students in Rome. He said the local format, which has young physicians tracking patients instead of rotating through specialties, is perfect for training future family physicians and he hopes it can be implemented across the MCG system, which has satellite campuses in Albany, Athens, Savannah and Brunswick.

The first cohort of students who started the Northwest Georgia clinical campus program in Rome in 2013 are just now finishing their residencies.

Dalton and the Hamilton Medical System was added to the Northwest Georgia mix last year when five third-year students spent half the year there rotating through education in internal medicine, surgery, neurology and psychiatry. Dr. Leonard Reeves, associate dean for the Northwest campus, said he expects ten students to flow through the Dalton program this year in addition to the 10 in Rome.

“Rome has been fantastic,” Hess said. He said the cooperation from physicians at Floyd Medical Center, Redmond Regional Medical Center and Harbin Clinic has fueled the success of the program.

Hess explained that the curriculum change still has to be approved by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education within the U.S. Department of Education. Approval for an increase in the number of students is also critical to the future for the program. “A lot will depend on funding from the state,” Hess said.

“One hundred ninety-one years of tradition we’re completely disassembling and putting it back together in some very creative ways,” Keel said. “Academia tends to be pretty unbreakable, and we’ve just completely shattered it and put it back together. It’s very exciting to see what’s happening here.”

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