By Helen K. Kelley
Doctor shortages are critical throughout the country. To address this growing problem in Georgia, educational institutions, health systems, legislators and medical organizations are working to increase the number of residencies offered to medical school graduates.
“Georgia is in a ‘world of hurt’ for having enough physicians. In fact, some counties have only one or no physicians,” says Waldon Garriss, M.D., who serves as the internal medicine director for WellStar Health System’s new residency program. “Georgia has traditionally been a net exporter of physicians. Newly graduated M.D.s and D.O.s have to leave Georgia to train because there is little opportunity here.
“What makes this situation particularly bad is that about 70 percent of physicians will end up practicing close to their last stop for training,” he adds. “If we’re sending our doctors elsewhere to train, they often don’t come back to Georgia.”
In answer to this need, WellStar has assembled a team of qualified clinicians and resources to achieve accreditation and begin a residency program that has already begun attracting applications from medical graduates. WellStar has completed its first interview season for its internal medicine and obstetrics/gynecology residencies, which will get underway this summer. The health system is currently working on accreditation for two additional residency programs in emergency medicine and surgery.
Garriss emphasizes the importance of reaching out to medical schools in Georgia and surrounding states to make them aware of these new residency opportunities.
“It’s obviously crucial and in keeping with our mission to have doctors who join WellStar and remain in our community, so it’s important for us to reach out to our state medical schools to make sure they know what we’re offering,” he says. “These are the students who already have some roots here in Georgia and the southeast because of school. They have the highest likelihood of staying.”
Patient Base, Specialty Programs Grow
James R. Zaidan, M.D., M.B.A., associate dean for graduate medical education (GME) at Emory University School of Medicine, says Emory’s residency programs, a great number of them established many decades ago, have continually expanded over the years in response to a growing patient base.
“There comes a point for most patients when they will need some form of specialized care. As our knowledge of different areas of medicine expands, little segments of those areas break away to become their own specialties, and we are constantly developing training programs for these new specialties,” he says. “When I started as the Associate Dean at Emory 16 years ago, I believe we offered about 67 accredited residency programs. Today, we offer more than 100.”
Zaidan emphasizes Emory’s ever-growing patient base as the driving force behind the growth of its residency program.
“This dramatic growth is directly attributable to the numbers and types of patients who come here. When a new need is identified, our GME faculty members, department chair and program directors will review the possibilities of creating a new program, asking questions like, ‘Does it make sense?,’ ‘Does Georgia need it?,’ ‘Do we think this program will do a lot of good?,’ and ‘Do we have a faculty member who will want to oversee it?’” he says. “If the answers are ‘yes,’ then we still have to undergo the rigorous accreditation process.”
Some of Emory’s newer residency programs, which will begin this summer, include epilepsy and medical biochemical genetics. Others, such as clinical informatics and interventional radiology, are undergoing the accreditation process.
“Georgia needs more physicians and certainly more primary care physicians. But we must keep in mind that primary care physicians will need experts to whom they can refer patients who require specialized care,” Zaidan says. “We need to have that specialized training here in Georgia.”
Scholarships Benefit Emory and Morehouse Students
In an effort to increase the number of practicing physicians in Georgia, the Medical Association of Atlanta Board of Directors has created four $5,000 scholarships, to be split evenly between senior medical students at Emory University School of Medicine and Morehouse School of Medicine.
To qualify for one of these scholarships, a senior medical student must have matched and committed to a residency program located in Georgia. Preference will be given to those students who have joined the Medical Association of Atlanta and attended MAA events.
State Invests in Rural Practitioners
Gov. Nathan Deal recently announced that Georgia will invest an additional $70 million in two medical schools as a result of a settlement agreement offer from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The recipients, Morehouse School of Medicine and Mercer University, were selected based on their continued efforts to place graduates in rural and underserved areas throughout the state.
“The state should receive these funds as a result of a healthcare lawsuit settlement regarding Medicaid reimbursements,” Deal says. “It is only fitting that we in turn invest this money in healthcare education programs, particularly those that prioritize placing primary care physician graduates in high-demand areas throughout the state. We look forward to continue working with these two medical schools to advance their healthcare training and delivery efforts.”
Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, says the medical school will use the money to help expand classes and its residency programs, as well as recruit new staff. Mercer University President William Underwood says their portion of money will be used to assist students with a commitment to providing primary care in areas of the greatest need.