New South Georgia medical school expected to boost rural health care

Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine's new medical school in Moultrie. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

South Georgia’s first four-year medical school is set to start classes next week, marking a new institute that school staff and state officials hope will boost health care services in rural parts of the state.

The new medical school, run by the nonprofit Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, is in Moultrie, an agricultural center of about 14,000 residents between Albany and Valdosta. Construction of the school’s $30 million, 75,000-square-foot building wrapped up last month, according to PMOC spokeswoman Barbara Myers.

The school’s first class of 55 students was chosen from more than 3,000 applicants, Myers said in a phone interview Wednesday. It will open with 21 faculty members and a total staff, she said. Classes start on Monday.

Of the 55 students enrolled in this year, 20 live in Georgia, said Jim Matney, CEO of Colquitt Regional Medical Center. Six students are from South Georgia, and Matney said, “there’s a real high probability they’ll stay here.”

Dr. Michael Sampson, the school’s chief academic officer, said the incoming students hail from Georgia and elsewhere in the Southeast and were picked in part because they showed interest in treating patients in rural communities. He expects many students will remain in South Georgia for their residencies after graduating, and noted the Philadelphia-based college already works with five hospitals in South Georgia.

Those hospitals include Colquitt Regional Medical Center, South Georgia Medical Center, Tift Regional Medical Center, Archbold Medical Center and Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.

“We didn’t build the campus here in South Georgia just to be another campus,” Sampson said. “We built it in rural Georgia to train physicians in the nuances of rural medicine.”

Rural hospitals in Georgia, already sparse in poorer areas where residents face heightened health problems, have seen staff and service reductions amid financial strain in recent years. The state Department of Community Health lists four of the five hospitals that Sampson mentioned as among the 50 most financially stressed in the state and qualified for Georgia’s tax-deductible donation program.

The new school is a welcome addition to South Georgia for Tommie Beth Willis, the president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce. The school should help boost the number of doctors in South Georgia and bolster services especially at Colquitt County Medical Center,” she said Wednesday. The center  completed a $30 million expansion to its Moultrie facility in 2014.

“It’s just going to make health care more readily available,” Willis said of the school. “We feel like the training hospital will definitely complement what we already have.”

The college’s other medical school, in Suwanee, already serves as a pipeline for some students to undertake residencies in south Georgia hospitals, Sampson said. The Suwanee school opened in 2005.

The Moultrie students, whose average age is 25, will start clinical rotations in family medicine, pediatrics, OB/GYN and surgery starting in their second year, then pursue specialty rotations before graduating, Sampson said. They will pursue degrees in osteopathic medicine, which Sampson said mirrors medical doctorate studies but also emphasizes a more “holistic point of view” involving therapeutic techniques and health education on top of traditional medical practices. Both osteopathic physicians and medical doctors are issued the same type of license by Georgia’s medical board.

Overall, Matney said the new school should help keep local hospitals like Colquitt Regional stocked with doctors in a state where most medical students train north of Macon and go on to join hospitals in the Atlanta metro area.

“This (school) is probably the most significant solution at addressing healthcare disparities in rural Georgia through increasing the number of physicians,” Matney said.

The ribbon cutting for Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s new medical school in Moultrie. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

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