Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center growing crop of new physicians in Southwest Georgia

Agency working in more than 30 counties to expand health care career opportunities

In this photo taken in July, Pathway to Med School students do their community-based research projects that are presented at the Georgia Academy of Family Medicine Scientific Assembly in Atlanta. Pathway to Med School is among the programs offered through SOWEGA-AHEC. (Submitted photo)

In this photo taken in July, Pathway to Med School students do their community-based research projects that are presented at the Georgia Academy of Family Medicine Scientific Assembly in Atlanta. Pathway to Med School is among the programs offered through SOWEGA-AHEC. (Submitted photo)

ALBANY — Now in its 23rd year of operation, the Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center — or SOWEGA-AHEC — has been working to train, recruit and retain to help maintain access to health care in an area of the state known to be particularly vulnerable to the consequences of physician shortages.

From the looks of it, the organization is only expanding its efforts to keep that mission going.

A non-profit operated by a community board of directors from the 38 counties its serves, SOWEGA-AHEC’s ultimate mission is to connect students to health careers.

“We connect workers to communities and communities to better health,” said Pam Reynolds, the organization’s executive director.

The recruitment portion of its mission starts long before medical school, all the way back to kindergarten.

“We go into classrooms and talk about health professionals and what they do,” Reynolds said. “We make what the student is learning (about in school) relevant. We have curriculum teachers can use.”

As part of this portion, the organization also offers micro camps to expose young people to health careers as well a course to potential health care workers through the rural studies program at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton. SOWEGA-AHEC creates and distributes DVDs and games for elementary school children to help them learn about health careers.

There is also the Pathway to Med School program, through which college students — preferably from the Southwest Georgia area — considering a career in medicine spend the month of July shadowing primary care physicians and conduct research for a term project they present at the end of the month.

“They take a poster and go to a scientific assembly, and are judged by family physicians,” Reynolds said. “The winner receives a monetary award.”

As part of the training component, SOWEGA-AHEC works with students as well as the educational institutions they represent.

“If a student wanted to come here for medical training, we bring in a preceptor,” Reynolds said. “We get an agreement from the institution and put them in a community setting for up to six weeks. We are hoping when the student here gets a good education, then ultimately when they finish their studies they will come here.

“We work with all the academic institutions in Georgia.”

Last year, Reynolds said, there were 771 rotations arranged — which amounts to 166,256 hours of training. SOWEGA-AHEC partners with various entities to ensure they can get free housing, managed by the organization and donated primarily by area hospitals, that is well-connected digitally to the outside world. If the student has a relative nearby they would rather stay with, then he or she is given a travel stipend.

“That is all added value for the institution in that they didn’t have to pay for it, ” she said.

The mission is not something that one organization can do alone; it involves a whole community. Also as part of its training efforts, SOWEGA-AHEC has been working with five regional centers — Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Tift Regional Medical Center, Colquitt Regional Medical Center, Archbold Medical Center and South Georgia Medical Center — over the last few years to bring more medical residency slots to the area.

“If we don’t do something … it is hard to recruit doctors to the region. We need to grow our own,” Reynolds said. “We help coordinate by putting students in a diverse learning culture.”

One such example is outreach to farm workers.

“We brought students in for a week to see thousands of farmer workers without access to care,” Reynolds said. “It provides access to care and expose students to a different population.”

It’s been well established that those who are from or train in a region are more likely to stay nearby, all the more reason to address physician shortages through more residency slot openings.

Like Reynolds, Jessica Rivenbark, executive director of the South Georgia Medical Education and Research Consortium in Moultrie, has seen this trend — as well as the advantages for addressing physician shortages, particularly in rural areas.

In order to help with that, the consortium has been focused not just on getting slots open in primary care residencies, but in emergency medicine and obstetrics and gynecology residencies as well.

“Health care is on the forefront of what is happening nationally,” Rivenbark said. “Our focus is that if we can get people to treat … people will have a better quality of life. A lot of rural hospitals are closing, or have one or two doctors.

” … It gives people quality of life and assurance. We are looking at the overall idea (of improving the community).”

The observation from Rivenbark’s point of view is that physicians generally stay within 150 miles of where they do their residency, and that an average of five jobs are created per one physician slot.

“The idea (is for) health care access, but it (also creates) economic vitality in our community,” she said. “It generates jobs and it generates impact.”

As part of the retainment piece, SOWEGA-AHEC also offers continuing medical education opportunities to those already working in the area’s health care field.

“We try to offer accessible and affordable education. We want health professionals (to stay relevant),” Reynolds said.

In order to make this happen, the organization helps workers get continuing education credits by creating videos in a studio at its office on West Third Avenue in Albany. The videos are filmed and uploaded so they can be accessed online.

In addition, SOWEGA-AHEC helps retainment by matching students with practitioners who are looking for talent and are compatible with one another. It also offers a 200-hour program for former nurses with lapsed licenses who want to get back in the field, the results of which are sent to the state’s licensing board.

“There are very few programs in Georgia (for nurses),” Reynolds said.

Data available from the Robert Graham Center shows that health care made up for 15.5 percent of the United States gross domestic product in 2005, which by itself demonstrates a need to focus on proper recruitment.

“We want to make sure we have the right individuals placed the right way,” Reynolds said.

At the same time, 7.9 percent and 4.4 percent went toward education and defense, respectively, data from the center shows. Information available from the Georgia Statewide Area Health Education Centers Steering Board shows that about 11 percent of all physicians treat 20 percent of the country’s population living in rural areas. Georgia ranks 10th in population, but 40th in physician supply per 100,000 people.

In order to fulfill its mission, SOWEGA-AHEC relies on funding — as well as other resources — from entities such as foundations, businesses, state and federal dollars, hospitals and other area partners.

“It takes a village to raise a crop,” Reynolds said. “We are a non-profit. We are not trying to make a lot of money, but we provide a great service.

“We could not do this without the community, including the health professionals who are giving their time. Health professionals donate their time, hospitals donate facilities and educational institutions know what we are doing so they send their students to us … they all play a role and we could not do it without them.”

In all, there are 400 health professionals in the region opening up their practices to students for the cause, Reynolds said.

Among the things Reynolds said she has been most proud of is a former physician assistant program, from which there are dozens of individuals still practicing in the area more than a decade after it has been discontinued. In addition to that, she also takes pride in the consortium and Pathway to Med School programs — both of which come into play with her hopes for the future.

“I would (like to see) more students practicing here and start up two new residency programs,” she said. “I think AHEC will help create new programs.”

Closing the gap on mental health services, as well as physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs are among the other things that may be coming in the future, Reynolds said.

The service area for SOWEGA-AHEC extends to the Alabama and Florida borders, and to Pulaski County to the north and Bacon County to the east. There are currently 1,744 pipeline graduates connected to the organization practicing in 35 counties in its service area, excluding Echols, Webster and Clay counties.