ALBANY — Dr. William Fricks received part of his medical training at the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency Program, now known as the Phoebe Family Medicine Program, even serving as chief resident.
With its former director, Dr. George Fredrick, transitioning into retirement, Fricks has come full circle, inheriting the job of program director about six weeks ago.
This places a lot of the responsibility for developing the next generation of physicians in a changing health care field on his shoulders.
Fricks has personal connections to southwest Georgia; both of his parents are from Americus. They were students at Georgia Southwestern State University before his father got a job in Virginia.
“This was where I was born, raised and went to college,” he said. “You feel like where you spend Christmas is your home. I knew I wanted to be in Georgia, but I was not sure where in the state I wanted to be.”
Fricks received his bachelor of science degree in biology from the College of William and Mary. After feeling the pull of the Peach State, he received his medical degree at the Medical College of Georgia. He was prepared to take a residency slot somewhere else when he was encouraged by Dr. Troy Kimsey, formerly a surgical oncologist with the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital Cancer Center, to look into the Southwest Georgia Family Medicine Residency Program.
“I really connected with the people (at Phoebe),” Fricks said. “They created a last-minute rotation for me in sports medicine.”
On his first day of that rotation, a nurse came into the room to ask him if he needed any help — which struck him as an indication of how much teamwork was valued over sticking to the traditional roles in a health care setting. So he made a change in his residency commitment.
“They treated me great those three years. I didn’t want to leave,” Fricks said. “It was a stand-up, great group of people.”
He got the chief resident position in 2003, and has since gotten married, had children and has seen most of his and his wife’s families relocate to southwest Georgia.
At the time Fredrick came in as program director, Fricks was the interim associate director. Fricks said he was thankful to have someone of Fredrick’s background to build on the program’s foundation.
“He brought 20 years of experience to the program,” Fricks said. “He was a mentor for me. I appreciate all that he poured into us.”
Fricks was the interim associate director for seven years and took on another role for two or three years. When Fredrick announced plans to retire roughly two months ago, Fricks was offered the interim director’s position before being named to the director role permanently.
“I like to be where I am needed,” he said.
Already having invested about 20 years at Phoebe, Fricks said he felt confident in his ability to devote himself to the 24 residents in the program.
The Albany-based medical residency program started in 1993, graduating the first class three years later. It graduated its most recent class earlier this summer, bringing the total number of graduates to 125.
“Taking over a residency in June; it is usually a busy time of year,” he said. “I had to hit the ground running.”
The goal in establishing the program was to train physicians in an area of the country that is medically underserved, with the expectation they follow the trend most young doctors do and stay in the same region where they received their education.
Officials with the program said around 60% of its graduates are currently practicing in Georgia, most of them in southwest Georgia. Since 2014, there has been a 100% board passage rate.
In the first year, residents of the program become acclimated with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Phoebe Primary Care at Northwest and the Albany community. They are assigned a panel of family medicine patients for whom they provide care for three years.
In the second year, the focus shifts from the inpatient setting to ambulatory setting, and the residents spend time each week seeing family medicine patients at Phoebe Primary Care at Northwest.
In the third year, the focus is on an outpatient setting, and the senior residents have three four-week rotations of elective time and are able to choose from a number of clinical learning experiences.
The program has a block rotation schedule, with the curriculum in the first year consisting of inpatient family medicine service, neurology, emergency medicine, procedures, obstetrics, inpatient pediatrics, critical care medicine and outpatient pediatrics. The second-year curriculum includes inpatient family medicine service, musculoskeletal medicine, management of health systems, inpatient pediatrics, dermatology and allergy, gastroenterology, cardiology, general surgery and some elective time.
In the third year, there is more time for electives along with inpatient family medicine, outpatient gynecology, surgical specialties, musculoskeletal medicine, emergency medicine, geriatrics and the neonatal intensive care unit.
For the academic year that just started, more than 1,100 applications for positions were received. Sixty-eight of the applicants were interviewed in October 2018 for eight slots. The doctors who claimed them started their time in the program on June 17.
Fricks said the curriculm will largely be unchanged for now, as will the number of slots the program supports. In the meantime, he’s grappling with what to do with some of the other aspects of the residents’ education.
“Medicine is changing, and I want to train the residents to practice in a model of care lasting six to seven years down the road,” he said. “The doctor makes the decision, but the team supports (the doctor). There is new technology, telemedicine. It’s more convenient and improves access to care. The technology is changing, and the delivery of care is changing.
“We don’t want them to have to learn it when they get out. They can learn it here. It is a difficult time to practice medicine with these changes going on. It may be hard, but we have a chance to give input into those changes.”
Challenges can cause burnout, even when the doctors are still completing their residencies. Fricks said he is in the process of determining how to help the residents under his charge overcome burnout.
The key appears to be sparking inspiration, and keeping up “world class primary care” so that everything else can fall into place.
“We are maintaining the backbone of the health care system,” Fricks said.
Fricks said he feels confident in his role because of the work Fredrick did while he was leading the program.
“He left me with a top-notch resident program, which is why it was easy to say yes,” Fricks said of his decision to take the position. “The program has grown its board pass rates, and we have a stable faculty. It’s been a very stable program in good condition.
“I feel confident and that is not because of me. I inherited a great team.”
Assuming leadership of the program after having been a product of it himself, Fricks said he wants nothing but the best for it.
“I think I definitely have a passion and there is a certain place in my heart that I want it to do well,” he said. “I want to make sure these residents get the same experience I got.
“This is an investment in our future. I don’t want the program to lose that.”
The group of residents Fricks is working with now gives him confidence, and he said he makes sure to get together with them outside of work on a monthly basis.
The program has a limited number of slots, and the focus is on recruiting people with a true passion for serving patients — so it cannot take just anybody looking for a residency position.
“I am not here to fill a spot just to fill a spot,” Fricks said. “That is not in line with what we want to do.
“It’s a calling. It’s not a job.”