ALBANY, Ga. -- A group of students with dreams of one day becoming doctors is one step closer to fulfilling those ambitions.
Eight college students from Southwest Georgia are currently taking part in a four-week program, known as Pathway to Med School, to help increase their chances of getting into medical school.
The program, which kicked off Tuesday, was initially developed through a collaboration involving the Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center, the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency Program, the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy and Albany Area Primary Health Care.
"It is a collaborative effort," said Jan Shiver, preceptor coordinator for SOWEGA-AHEC.
Pathway to Med School is a 160-hour, structured experience designed to assist participants in their efforts to gain acceptance into a Georgia medical school, reinforce an interest in primary care medicine, provide early exposure to family medicine, provide exposure to community medicine and encourage students to return to Southwest Georgia after completing their education.
"We hope they will come back and practice in Southwest Georgia," Shiver said.
The program first came to life six years ago. Since its inception, 45 students have completed the program. About 90 percent of those participants have gained admission to medical school.
During the four-week time frame, students spend more than 100 hours shadowing a primary care physician. The remaining hours are spent on a research project.
"All of this is part of an effort to identify students from Southwest Georgia who want to be physicians," Shiver said.
Participants in the program are expected to be attending a private or public college in Georgia and have a permanent residence in Southwest Georgia.
"We had 58 applicants this year from all over the state, but we do give preference to those from Southwest Georgia," Shiver said. "It's a very competitive program."
Applicants are required to have a 3.0 GPA overall, as well as a 3.0 GPA in their science courses. In addition, they are expected to write an essay on why they want to be a physician.
"(The essay) is the main criteria for selection," said Dr. Michael Sein, a physician at Albany Area Primary Health Care and faculty member for the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency Program. "It helps to see the uniqueness of interest in medicine in Southwest Georgia."
The students also attend seminars to help them prepare for the medical school admission process. Most who participate in the program are either rising juniors or seniors in college, around the time they would be expected to enter into the medical school application process.
Since the program is still in its formative years, it is too early to tell in terms of numbers whether the program is having a significant impact on the region.
However, those close to the program say they are seeing evidence that Pathway to Med School is fulfilling its purpose as far as improving physician accessibility in Southwest Georgia.
"We do see students coming back to apply for the residency program here," Sein said. "(The physician shortage) was how the whole program got started. We had to start early and show them what we do.
"We have to try to promote the interest early."
Shiver echoed Sein's sentiment.
"It may take a few more years to show the success rate, but we do feel this will impact the area in terms of the physician shortage," she said.
From the time a person applies to medical school when his or her residency is completed, eight to 10 years will usually go by.
The shortage of primary care physicians is more than just a Southwest Georgia problem. The impact is being felt on the state and national level.
"We're not saying it's a bad thing to choose a specialty, but we need primary care physicians," Shiver said. "We need to stimulate interest."
Catie Duskin, a rising senior at Mercer University, is from Dawson. She first heard about the program while still in high school.
"I went to school with (former SOWEGA-AHEC preceptor coordinator) Julie Roth's daughter, and she told me about it," Duskin said. "I've been looking at the program for the past couple of years."
Duskin also happens to be a brain tumor survivor, which gave her a whole new perspective on the health care industry.
"From an early age, I was thrown into a hospital setting," she said. "No matter what age you are, health is important."
She is hopeful that having been on the other side of the fence will help her connect with patients.
"As a doctor, I will be able to communicate with patients in a way that all of their questions will be answered," Duskin said.
She is leaning more toward a career in primary care, a decision also influenced by her experience as a patient.
"I saw a lot of specialists early on, but I didn't have much exposure to primary care physicians," the budding doctor said. "They (the primary care physicians) are the people that make sure things are taken care of."
Just within her first two days in the program, Duskin was been able to go through an entire clinic visit -- something she might not have been able to do otherwise.
"This gives you opportunities most students don't get; you are shadowing many kinds of physicians," she said.
The research project piece is unique on its own.
"That aspect is something no other undergraduate would get," Duskin said. "It's an invaluable experience."
Pathway to Med School is a program that also has the potential to look very good on a resume, Shiver said.
"It sets them (the participants) apart from other medical school applicants," she said.
The greatest amount of time the students spend in the program is with the Albany Area Primary Health Care system, which takes them to clinics in Albany, Dawson, Leesburg, Edison and Newton.
"They spend the next-largest block with the medical residents and faculty at the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency Program," Shiver said. "They also spend time with physicians in private practice."
Outside speakers are invited to give special presentations to the participants. Those in the program also go through a mock interview process.
The Pathway to Med School graduation is set for July 30.
On July 22, a public forum is planned to take place at Phoebe Northwest for area students interested in medicine. The event will include appearances from admissions representatives at various medical education institutions in Georgia.