PCOM South Georgia Works to Fill the Need for Rural Physicians
A shortage of physicians in rural areas—it’s what brought PCOM South Georgia to Moultrie, a city of 14,000 located in the Southwestern region of the state, in 2019.
Although statistics indicate that nearly 41% of Georgia’s population lives in rural areas, only 8% of the state’s physicians practice in rural Georgia as noted by the Rural Health Information Hub. And according to the Georgia Board for Physician Workforce, there are about half as many physicians per capita in Georgia’s non-metropolitan areas as compared to its cities. In addition, 17% of physicians in rural Georgia are nearing retirement age based on a study published by Statista.
Statistics like these are what caught the attention of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, an established medical school with a storied history and campuses in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Suwanee, Georgia. With a focus on encouraging graduates to serve where the need is greatest, PCOM, together with tremendous support from leadership in the region, established PCOM South Georgia.
There are two primary factors contributing to the lack of physicians in rural Georgia: educational loan payback burden and the qualities of rural living, according to Stacie Fairley, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at PCOM South Georgia.
“After graduating from medical school, new doctors need to pay back their loans. Some rural hospitals offer bonuses and some even offer physician loan repayment programs. However, there is a maximum amount and when that amount is reached, young physicians often leave. They frequently return to more urban hospitals for different opportunities, leading to a physician shortage in those rural areas,” she said.
The goal of closing that gap is being led by PCOM South Georgia’s Dean and Chief Academic Officer, H. William Craver, III, DO, FACOS. Dr. Craver is no stranger to rural medicine. He worked as a physician in the communities of Jasper, Georgia, and Hardinsburg, Kentucky. While working in the “Bluegrass State,” Dr. Craver was the only surgeon in the county practicing in a hospital with just 25 beds. Dr. Craver’s professional background gives him a firsthand understanding of the struggle to find physicians to practice in Southwest Georgia. Through the years, he has been a leader and advocate for health care in Georgia, serving on the medical education advisory committee of the Georgia Board for Physician Workforce. He is also a member of the Medical Association of Georgia and is part of the council on legislation and the rural healthcare group.
“In order to address the need for rural physicians, we’re recruiting students from underserved areas which include many counties in Georgia and the Southeast. We’re starting the recruiting process early with our pipeline programs that encourage local, underrepresented high school students to join the healthcare field. We’re visiting colleges in the region to promote the medical school that’s right here in South Georgia. We’re partnering with hospitals in our region to provide clinical education positions for our students during their third and fourth years of medical school, as well as residency positions upon graduation,” said Dr. Craver.
Pipeline programs led by the College’s Office of Admissions, such as the Future Healthcare Scholars Program and Students Progressing in Academics for Readiness and Knowledge (SPARK), encourage local high school students in Southwest Georgia to consider a career in health care. By providing hands-on experience to students, PCOM South Georgia aims to inspire change and action in the medically underserved communities, as well as in the communities surrounding the campus.
Additional pipeline programs are hosted by the College through a collaboration with local high schools and current PCOM students. These programs, such as the Science and Math Summer Academy (SMSA), serve as an opportunity for high schoolers to be mentored in areas such as applying for college, finding scholarships and financing medical school. It’s an opportunity to show students that no matter where they come from, they have the ability to choose a career in health care.
“SMSA is a great opportunity for local high school students to take a crash-course in the medical school curriculum,” said Dr. Fairley, who leads the program. “They’re exposed to highlights of the same content that is presented to our first-year Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine students. Our students show them that no matter what background they come from, they can go on and become physicians.”
The mission to close the gap is important to PCOM South Georgia’s faculty and staff, in addition to the students, many of whom are from rural areas and plan to return there after graduation.
In an essay written as a senior at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Julia Patterson (DO ‘23), said, “The satisfaction of serving our rural community must outweigh the conveniences and amenities that could be found in a big city. Who else can better serve our community than those who are from it? It is to our advantage and our community’s advantage to have healthcare providers who are from our area and understand the problems and difficulties our region faces.”
Patterson is a Doerun, Georgia, native, who grew up less than 30 minutes from where she now studies medicine. The essay was written as part of the groundbreaking ceremony for PCOM South Georgia. The Southwest Georgia Area Health Education Center (SOWEGA-AHEC), based in Albany, coordinated the contest which asked students to respond to the question: “How can your generation work together to help shape the future of health in South Georgia?” The AHEC plays a large part in encouraging high school students to pursue healthcare careers. Patterson participated in the AHEC’s Pathway to Med School program in 2018 and had been associated with the AHEC since high school. In addition, Patterson had the opportunity to participate in the SERVE (Students Embracing Real Volunteer Experiences) program and volunteered for the Farmworker Health Project.
Through the efforts of the PCOM South Georgia Admissions team, students like Patterson are invited to the new Colquitt County campus. The team works with local high school and college students to showcase South Georgia’s only medical school. Assistant Director of Admissions, Dana Brooks, said her team recruits at area colleges, hosting open houses and information sessions at Valdosta State University, Albany State University, Thomas University, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University among others.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), in 2016 and 2017, students from rural backgrounds made up just 4.3% of the incoming medical student body. The College is working hard to increase that number by purposefully recruiting students from rural areas. The inaugural DO class hails from the Southeast with 24 students from Georgia (12 from Southwest Georgia) and 23 students from Florida. The new DO class boasts 29 students from 19 from Georgia with the remaining 11 students coming from the Southeast. The biomedical sciences program includes 11 students from Georgia, two from Florida and one from Alabama.
After completing the four years of medical school, students must continue their training by completing residency programs from three to seven additional years. Dr. Fairley stressed the importance of the medical school journey—a lengthy education that can take place entirely in South Georgia.
“Our students are educated here,” she said. “They rotate here during their third and fourth years, and some have the opportunity to complete their residencies here. These students will be in this area for several years, so we all have the opportunity to encourage them to stay and practice here.”
With the support of local communities, regional hospitals and the passion of faculty, staff and students, PCOM South Georgia is working to fill the need of physicians in rural Georgia.
About PCOM South Georgia
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) extended its commitment to the Southeast by establishing PCOM South Georgia, an additional teaching location in Moultrie, Georgia, which offers a full four-year medical program leading to the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree and a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences degree. PCOM is a private, not-for-profit institution which trains professionals in the health and behavioral sciences fields. Joining PCOM Georgia in Suwanee in helping to meet the healthcare needs of the state, PCOM South Georgia focuses on educating physicians for the South Georgia region. The medical campus, which welcomed its inaugural class of medical students on August 12, 2019, has received accreditation from the American Osteopathic Association’s Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation. For more information, visit www.pcom.edu or call 229-798-4710.