With the snip of a pair of scissors, a consortium of hospitals moved forward Friday on a plan that may dramatically improve health care options in Southwest Georgia.
The ribbon cutting ceremony for the South Georgia Medical Education and Research Consortium marked the opening of an office for the group, which has been working since the spring of 2010 to establish a physician residency program in this part of the state.
Five hospitals — Colquitt Regional Medical Center, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Archbold Memorial Hospital in Thomasville, Tift Regional Medical Center in Tifton and South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta — have contributed resources to make that dream a reality, but they still have a long way to go.
Jim Lowry, chairman of the consortium’s board of directors and former president of Colquitt Regional, said the hospitals hope to start their first class of residents July 1, 2014, and graduate them three years later.
About a hundred people from all five communities gathered at the new office on Sweet Bay Court, about a block from Colquitt Regional Medical Center, for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Each hospital was represented by its president or someone acting in his name, and Moultrie Mayor Bill McIntosh gave each a key to the city.
Moultrie was chosen for the consortium’s headquarters because it’s centrally located among all the partners.
The consortium is a response to several problems that add up to a shortage of doctors in Southwest Georgia:
• Georgia overall is 47th in the nation in physician access, based on the number of physicians per 100,000 people.
• As of 2010, 85 percent of the graduates of the Medical College of Georgia did their residency out of state.
• A study by the Georgia Physicians Workforce Board, on which Lowry has served for six years, found that after physicians finish their residencies, 65 percent of them open practices within 65 miles of where they did their residency.
Add to those an expansion of health coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (often called Obamacare) and the number of physicians who are approaching retirement age.
Lowry said Georgia produces enough medical students; the problem is with residencies — which are officially called Graduate Medical Education, or GMEs.
“Once you graduate medical school, you are qualified to be a Walmart greeter,” Lowry said. The GME trains medical graduates to actually practice medicine on people.
Representatives of the five hospitals formed a committee in 2010 to discuss starting a GME program in South Georgia, Lowry said. Each put in $100,000 — a total of $500,000, which was matched by the Medical College of Georgia. The committee hired consultants and made a plan. Eventually it applied for grants to help it move forward.
Jessica Rivenbark was hired as executive director in March, and the consortium’s office officially opened Friday.
The next step, Lowry said, is to hire a chief medical officer. A search firm has identified four physicians who want the job, and Lowry said interviews should take place in the latter part of August and negotiations in October with the doctor the consortium chooses. If all proceeds on schedule, the CMO would start in January.
The chief medical officer will be in charge of all five residency programs, each of which will also have a director. The first class will all be internists, and a new program will be added each year: General surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics-gynecology and emergency room medicine are the other planned specialties.
Medical schools may or may not be at hospitals, Lowry said, but GMEs always are, and residents in the consortium’s GME will be scattered among the member hospitals. Each class is expected to have about three residents in each program at each of the five hospitals. Those numbers could have the program graduating 75 doctors each year once all the programs are in full swing.
“This program allows each hospital to have a residency program none could fund alone,” Rivenbark said.
Phoebe Putney in Albany already has a family medicine residency, and Lowry said it will remain independent for at least five years.
“After five years we’re confident Phoebe will want us to manage their GME and we’ll roll it right in,” he said.
Dr. Doug Patten, senior vice president at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, mentioned Phoebe’s program during an interview after Friday’s ceremony.
“We just see the consortium as an opportunity to grow that,” Patten said.
Although getting the GME started and growing it to five specialties over five years is all the consortium can handle at the moment, members are already looking beyond those challenges to Phase II.
In Phase II — whenever the consortium can implement it — the hospitals will be able to actively recruit South Georgia students to go to medical school, come back here for their residency and have a job waiting for them in the area, Lowry said.
The hospitals have been watching over students in their own communities for years, helping them where they could, but they couldn’t offer a contract until the student finished his or her residency because that’s when the doctor gets trained in a specialty.
“We can’t offer them a contract because we don’t know what they’re going to do,” Lowry said.
When everything’s up and running, though, the consortium will be able to tell a student, “If you go to medical school and do a residency in one of our programs, we know there will be an opening in that specialty in one of our five hospitals when you graduate.”
“I think Phase II will be the life blood of our system,” Lowry said.