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A healing prescription
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With Georgia now 40th in the country in training and recruiting physicians to practice here, it’s time to expand medical education programs to Athens and to other campuses around the state.

By 2020, Georgia is expected to have added 3 million new residents. But without a significant expansion of medical education, the state will have fewer practicing physicians by then than it does today.

Last year, efforts in the General Assembly to expand medical education got sidetracked by Augusta legislators worried that the University of Georgia was trying to establish a medical school in Athens to compete with the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. Eventually, the state Board of Regents made it clear that UGA plans to partner with the Medical College to make medical classes available in Athens, not set up a school of its own.

Last month, the regents accepted a consultant’s plan to increase the number of medical students being trained in public programs from 745 a year to 1,200 by 2020. That increase would be accomplished by spreading the Medical College of Georgia’s programs around the state and require a state investment of about $200 million over the next dozen years.

First, the Legislature has to authorize enough money to develop an extension of the Medical College’s programs in Athens as soon as possible. The goal is to enroll 40 new medical students on the Athens campus next year and push that number to 60 new students a year by 2012.

The new Athens campus, on the site of the former Navy Supply Corps School, can be developed while programs on the Medical College’s core campus in Augusta are also expanded.

Gov. Sonny Perdue is recommending $7.2 million in medical school planning next year — most of it for programs in Athens — on top of the nearly $3 million the state earmarked last year.

But plans for long-term expansion go well beyond Augusta and Athens, eventually including creation of clinical programs for third- and fourth-year students in Savannah and Albany.

Georgia is the largest state in the country with only one public medical school. Fortunately, Emory University, Morehouse School of Medicine and Mercer University operate private schools, with the last two sharing a mission of training primary-care physicians to serve where they are most needed.

Other steps are also necessary. The state needs to increase nursing school enrollment and create new programs using nurse practitioners and physician assistants in rural areas. Some states — New York most recently — also offer to forgive medical-school loans for students who agree to serve up to five years in areas where physicians are scarce.

So far, Georgia’s approach is not that innovative. But it at least represents a serious effort to address the state’s growing physician shortage, and state legislators ought to embrace it. Georgia cannot afford to fall further behind than it already is.

- Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 24, 2008


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