Mercer expansion will produce more doctors

LAUREN NARDELLA
http://www.savannahnow.com

This is the sixth installment in our year-end series counting down the top 10 local business stories of 2007. The stories will be featured in Exchange each day through Jan. 1:

10. Savannah’s Herty Center bringing biofuel development to state (Sunday, Dec. 23)

9. JCB has best year ever (Monday, Dec. 24)

8. Airport completes trio of major expansion projects in 2007 (Tuesday, Dec. 25)

7. Warehouses support port growth, logistics (Wednesday, Dec. 26)

6. High-flying Gulfstream spreads its wings in Savannah (Thursday, Dec. 27)

K eeping new doctors in Georgia is one of the reasons Mercer University’s School of Medicine decided to expand its Savannah campus at Memorial University Medical Center. The economic impact it could have on Savannah would be a bonus.

Mercer and Memorial made the announcement in June that they would begin gradually increasing the amount of medical students in Savannah beginning August of 2008.

Mercer’s Savannah campus is presently home to 40 third- and fourth-year medical students, and has already started to admit first-year students for the fall. Mercer will now offer the full four-year experience in Savannah and mirror its curriculum on the Macon campus.

“This has been done to serve the health care needs of the state,” said Dr. Robert Hash, the senior associate dean of the Savannah campus. “This is not about Memorial, this is not about Mercer, it’s about a community coming together with a hospital and a university to serve what the state needs for the future.”

The partnership between Mercer and Memorial formally began in 1996, when third- and fourth-year students had the option to complete medical school at the Savannah campus of Memorial. The state has supplied funding in the amount of $5.5 million for the expansion.

Retaining local graduates

Georgia ranks 40th in the nation with 204 active physicians per 100,000 residents, according to data from the American Association of Medical Colleges.

With the state’s population estimated to grow, Georgia will be experiencing a physician shortage especially in the southern half of the state.

“Our mission is to train physicians for Georgia,” Hash said. “The coastal plain area has some real physician needs.”

The physician work force in Georgia is aging with 25 percent nearing retirement in the next few years, according to Dr. Ramon Meguiar, the senior vice president and chief medical officer at Memorial and the senior associate dean for clinical affairs for Mercer’s Savannah campus.

“We need to replenish them,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to assure physician availability to our community and surrounding region.”

Mercer only admits students who are Georgia residents, and 65 percent of Mercer graduates remain in the state to practice. Forty-seven percent of all physicians in Georgia graduated from Georgia medical schools, according to data from the AAMC.

Doctors tend to practice near where they go to school, Hash said, adding that “most professionals tend to gravitate to metropolitan areas.”

“One of the overall benefits of being a teaching facility is generally being able to attract physicians in complex care and subspecialties,” Meguiar said.

First-year students have already been accepted to the Savannah campus to start in August. It’s expected the class will have 30 students and the first-year class sizes will gradually increase. By 2012, the incoming class size is expected to reach 60 students, for 240 total students. The number of residents at Memorial should remain near 113, according to Meguiar.

According to a survey by the AAMC, national enrollment in medical schools is expected to increase by 15 percent by 2012.

Economic impact

Every dollar a medical school or teaching hospital spends indirectly injects $2.30 into the economy, according to an AAMC report.

“Medical schools have a far-reaching impact on a community,” Meguiar said.

Not only are new students going to filter into town, but 44 new faculty members are expected to be hired and relocate to Savannah over the next four years.

“The biggest challenge is to recruit faculty,” Hash said. Faculty members that have been hired are coming from the Mayo Clinic, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Tina Thompson is in the process of relocating to Savannah from Mercer’s Macon campus. She is the associate dean for academic affairs and an associate professor of neuroscience, and will be teaching first-year students.

“They’re inquisitive,” she said. “They’re getting to learn our system and are very enthusiastic about their studies.”

Thompson is excited about her move to Savannah, and looks forward to enjoying the restaurants and galleries downtown in her free time.

Like Thompson, Dr. Wayne Glasgow is relocating from Macon. He is a professor of pharmacology and the chair of the department of biomedical sciences.

The interdisciplinary approach to teaching is what Glasgow enjoys.

“As a teacher, you continually learn,” he said. “You have to study along with the students to be effective.”

Glasgow and Thompson have been involved in recruiting additional faculty to the Savannah campus.

“Savannah has been a very nice place to recruit to,” Glasgow said. “It’s a culturally diverse, exciting area with lots of growth potential.”

It is possible the expansion of the medical school in Savannah will attract businesses in similar fields or support to the area.

What the school offers

First- and second-year medical students will spend much of their time in the classroom, but one of the program’s strengths is its current clinical program for third- and fourth-year students, Hash said. Students participate as interns and work with teams of residents, often putting in 70-hour weeks during the “immersion” experience.

Third-year student Maria Gorokhov is from Atlanta and spent her first two years of medical school at the Macon campus, but she chose to come to the Savannah campus for her second two years.

In addition to her studies, Gorokhov enjoys being able to go to the beach and participate in activities outside the hospital.

“After a long week, being able to do things is appreciated,” she said.

Long weeks include working on resident teams for each rotation. “When they get paged, you get paged.”

For fourth-year student Joshua McKenzie, being close to his family was one of the reasons he came to the Savannah campus.

McKenzie grew up in Savannah and graduated from Benedictine Military School and Armstrong Atlantic State University.

“I was from Savannah and wanted to return to the area and work,” he said. “The reputation of the medical school as a teaching institution is great.”

McKenzie is studying radiation oncology, and hopes he’ll be able to complete his residency in Savannah.

“There’s greater diversity of health care to get exposed to, more than in a smaller city.”

The opportunities for research also attracted McKenzie to the campus and he spent a month researching sarcoma cell lines with doctors at Memorial.

One-third of medical students at the Macon campus participate in research and all students are encouraged to take part in the research opportunities offered, Hash said.

“Memorial has landed a quality research program,” he said. “It’s easier because there’s research already going on here.

“To teach cutting-edge science, you have to participate in cutting- edge science. If you stop research, you won’t be cutting edge tomorrow.”

What’s next for Mercer and Memorial

Mercer’s Savannah campus is presently housed at the William and Iffath Hoskins Center for Biomedical Research at Memorial. The hospital has allowed Mercer to use additional building space on its campus that the medical school is renovating. Located between the day surgery and emergency departments, the new school will offer students a larger library, additional labs and a clinical skills facility.

The new building will be complete in the next few weeks and the labs are scheduled to be finished in March, according to Hash.

Mercer officials have already planned to outgrow the new facilities at Memorial by 2012 because of the expected increase in the campus population during the next four years, and they are anticipating the need for additional expansion.

In 10 years, Hash hopes to have a “legitimate academic health-services center” in Savannah. Officials are exploring opportunities to expand the programs offered to include allied health professions, nursing and pharmacy.

“That’s what we hope to develop along with a strong academic base,” Hash said. “(In 2008) we’ll have to start planning for and finding resources for the growth of the school itself.”

WHAT HAPPENED

Mercer University’s Medical School decided to expand its Savannah campus at Memorial University Medical Center to include first- and second-year medical students.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

Georgia will be experiencing a physician shortage in the coming years, and the expansion will help train additional doctors. New faculty members will be hired, and it could have a positive economic impact on Savannah.

WHAT’S NEXT

The class of 2012 will begin its studies at the Savannah campus in August.
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