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Phoebe and Georgia Regents University growing rural doctors

Finding doctors to practice in rural areas a growing concern being addressed by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Georgia Regents University

Dr. George Fredrick, director of the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency program, tries to find prospective students that will settle and practice medicine in southwest Georgia. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)

Dr. George Fredrick, director of the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency program, tries to find prospective students that will settle and practice medicine in southwest Georgia. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)

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Dr. C. Granville Simmons, Associate Dean of Georgia Regent’s University’s Albany campus, wants to see a greater pipeline for taking rural kids through medical school and having them move back to rural areas to practice medicine after graduation. Photo Courtesy of Georgia Regent’s University)

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This map shows the locations of where physicians who have graduated from the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency program are now practicing. The map includes every doctor that finished the program since its first graduating class in 1996 that have stayed in Georgia. (Map Courtesy of Phoebe Putney Health System)

ALBANY — Throughout the United States, access to medical care is becoming a growing concern for a variety of reasons. In rural Southwest Georgia, the concern is already all too real.

One of the biggest challenges facing both the United States as a whole and Southwest Georgia is scarcity of physicians, something both Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Georgia Regents University’s Albany campus is working to combat.

Phoebe Putney, through it’s Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency program, trains incoming physicians and in doing so hopes to expand the overall network of physicians in the region.

According to Dr. George Fredrick, director of Phoebe’s Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency, one the main goals of the program, along with providing excellent training, is to expose resident doctors to rural Georgia in the hopes they will want to practice in a rural setting after graduation.

Fredrick said one of the primary criteria in choosing who is accepted to the residency program is determining whether a candidate will remain in the area upon completion of the program.

“It takes probably a good hour or so of going through an application trying to sort out, is this a good candidate or not?” Fredrick said. “Is this someone that would make a good resident, No. 1, and are they someone that potentially is looking for a destination and not just a stopping point? We’re trying to look for people that would really like to settle in the area and stay in the area.”

Considering how involved the entire application process is, trying to determine whether a person might ultimately stay in Southwest Georgia can be very time consuming. But, ultimately, it can pay off.

Fredrick said that this year the program received 1,706 applications for its five available spots. The applications had to be screened and applicants called in for interviews.

“I have over 1,700 applications, so you kind of screen through those and we have criteria we filter through and we try to find the people that are going to best fit with our program in Southwest Georgia,” Fredrick explained. “So, after you screen the applications, you invite the people and they have to accept and come for an interview. We interviewed 65 people for the five positions. I involve faculty in the interview process, and I involve other residents because they’re picking their own team.

After we go through all the interviews, the residents have a big meeting and they tell me who they like. I could fill the program in a heartbeat, but I want to get the right people that hopefully will end up staying in the area.”

Even after the application, screening and interview processes has been completed, the residency program still has to rank its top choices and have those choices go through the federally mandated National Resident Match Program, in which the residents are matched with the schools they chose as their top destinations, something that causes some heartburn for Fredrick.

“I personally kind of think they throw the names up in the air and choose five of them,” Fredrick said. “It’s a crap shoot. Every year I get my list and I go, ‘Oh, OK, that’s who we got.’ This year we got our list, and we got our No. 1 and No. 2 pick in our match, and we filled all five of our positions, so we’re happy with that.”

Fredrick said because of the match program, it has become important for residency programs to gain exposure to medical students earlier in the education process, which helps the program get a better feel for the students and shows the students the benefits of continuing their graduate medical education at Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency.

“One thing that I’ve really emphasized is the fact that the more exposure that we have to students, the more the likelihood is that we can recruit them to come into the residency,” Fredrick said. “We now have a campus of Georgia Regents University where students are actually housed in Albany for their third and fourth year of medical school, and they’ll do their rotations at Phoebe or some of the other local hospitals. That is really kind of neat because now we’re exposed to those students and we get to interact with them.”

That strategy has begun to pay off for the program, as this year the school not only got its top two choices, it filled four of the five slots with students that were able to claim some tie to Georgia: one from GRU, one from Mercer, one from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, which has a campus in Atlanta, one from Morehouse College, and one student from Boston University who is originally from Georgia.

“Again, when I’m going through those 1,706 applications, I’m looking at what school they’re from, I’m looking at do they have ties to Georgia, do they have family in Georgia, have they been in Georgia before if they’re from somewhere else?” Fredrick said. “The girl from Boston University is from Georgia, so she’s coming back home. So you might say Boston University is not local, but she went away for school. And that’s the person you’re kind of like, ‘She applied and I need to bring that one in because maybe she wants to come back home to work.’ Those are the kinds of things you have to consider.”

As mentioned by Fredrick, the presence of the Albany GRU campus has also done a lot to help funnel doctors into Southwest Georgia, something the university’s associate dean, Dr. C. Granville Simmons, feels is an integral part of the campus’ mission and one of the main reasons GRU chose to open a Southwest Georgia location.

“If you look at a map of health disparities, the southwest part of Georgia is always the pits,” Simmons said. “If you look at that same map and look at where the family practice residents have practiced, the majority of them are in that area. So we want the same map for our graduates, so that the graduates of the medical school at this campus — and we’re trying to focus more and more on rural practice — will wind up staying in this area. Because that’s the only way we’re going to change that map about the health disparities.”

Like Fredrick, Simmons points to data that suggest a large majority of physicians practice within a 60- to 100-mile radius of where they completed their residency. He hopes students from GRU’s southwest campus will grow to love rural Georgia and consider doing their residencies in a similar rural area.

Simmons, who prior to working at GRU was a partner in a large private practice in southern Georgia, said he feels a real concern about physicians coming to rural Georgia, something he began to see in private practice.

“I could see it from the other end,” Simmons said. “We had a huge practice. We had offices in four other towns, and at one point up to 12 providers. But finding qualified people who would come to a rural area got to be harder and harder and harder.”

To help fill those needs, Simmons said that not only do Phoebe and GRU need to promote medical education in rural areas, but that there needs to be a pipeline that will help children from rural areas gain interest in medicine at an early age to help funnel them into medicine.

“I can take a rural kid that finished high school in the upper part of his class, and if he has an interest in medicine, with some little extra help and curriculum stuff, get him to college and into medical school. I can make him a doctor, and he’ll come back to a rural place,” Simmons said. “I cannot take an urban kid from Atlanta, no matter how, quote, ‘smart,’ end quote, they are and put them in a rural environment and expect them to practice and stay there. In the first place, they’re not going to go there unless there’s some huge incentive for them to do that. So my whole idea is to develop a pipeline for getting to kids in middle and high school in rural areas and getting them interested in medicine.”

While both Simmons and Fredrick say they feel there is still a lot of work to be done, things appear to be moving in the right direction.

“It’s been successful,” said Fredrick. “It’s a net. We’re trying to catch the best-level people we can get and bring those people into the area. And if they train here and know doctors here, the more incentive they have to stay here. That’s what you’ve got to look at. You’re providing a service. That’s the whole principal of training them and then putting them out there.”