Report reveals doctors' importance to economy

By DEBBIE GILBERT
The Times
GAINESVILLE

A new study finds that if doctors in Hall County were considered as a single group, they would be among the area’s largest employers.

“At any given time between the years 2001 and 2025, there would be an average of 2,357 jobs,” said Tom Tanner, a research analyst with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

“These are people who are either directly employed by physicians or whose jobs wouldn’t exist if doctors weren’t there.”

Tanner uses computer models to conduct economic impact studies for local governments and nonprofit groups.

“This (physician report) is one of the first studies I’ve done on a specific profession,” he said. “Usually, I research an entire industry. But the Hall County Medical Society approached me and asked me to do this.”

Frank McDonald, a Gainesville neurologist and president of the medical society, said the organization paid about $10,000 for the 226-page study.

“The hospital (Northeast Georgia Medical Center) always touts their economic impact on the community,” he said. “We hope this will show that doctors make contributions to the community as well.”

Every year, the Georgia Hospital Association conducts an economic analysis on each of its member hospitals.

For 2004, the most recent year for which data were available, Northeast Georgia Medical Center generated more than $755 million in revenue and $376 in household income.

Those figures include only the hospital itself, not other parts of Northeast Georgia Health System such as its primary care clinics.

“We were trying to get a snapshot of how we compare to the hospital,” McDonald said. “The hospital is one entity. It’s harder to get an idea of doctors’ impact because we’re scattered into so many smaller practices.”

About 450 physicians have privileges to admit patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, though not all of them live or practice in Hall.

But Tanner was able to plug enough numbers into his computer models to make some projections. He looked at the quarter-century between 2001 and 2025 because it somewhat parallels Hall County’s Vision 2030 planning project.

He calculated that in each of those 25 years, physicians would generate an average of about $222 million in wages in Hall and $34 million in adjacent counties.

In addition, each year doctors would generate about $310 million in revenue in Hall, and $96 million in neighboring counties.

“Revenue represents goods and services that otherwise wouldn’t have been sold (if physicians hadn’t been there),” Tanner said.

That includes items purchased directly by doctors and by the people whose jobs depend on them.

Though it could be argued that hospitals and physicians have a symbiotic relationship and one would not exist without the other, Tanner conducted two separate analyses. One scenario includes the medical center in the equation; the other does not.

Naturally, if the hospital is included, the numbers are much bigger. Northeast Georgia Health System is Hall’s largest employer, with about 4,000 workers.

Health system officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

McDonald said the medical society wanted to show that physicians themselves are an economic force.

“I don’t want to imply that we have an antagonistic relationship with the hospital, because we certainly don’t,” he said. “But doctors don’t have much political clout.

“(With this study) we now have something we can show to politicians when we go to talk to them about issues such as employment, taxation, Medicaid, certificate of need and physician reimbursement.”

Tanner said what surprised him most when he crunched the numbers was the wage impact.

“Not just the physicians, but all the jobs connected to them had wages (in Hall) about 20 percent higher than average,” he said.

Tanner thinks wages may be rising because more specialists are moving into Hall. For example, the number of cardiologists in Gainesville has nearly doubled since the Ronnie Green Heart Center opened in 2002.

Those doctors bring with them a need for specially trained cardiac nurses and technicians, who may command higher salaries because of their advanced education and skills.

But physicians also need many nonmedical personnel.

“It’s not just the employees you see in exam rooms,” said Jullie King, spokeswoman for the Longstreet Clinic. “We have a central business office that employs dozens of people behind the scenes,”

She said the Longstreet Clinic, Gainesville’s largest multispecialty physician practice, currently has 457 employees.

Tanner said doctors and their employees help create jobs in other fields.

“For example, if they all pulled up stakes and moved their families outside of Hall County, you would need fewer schoolteachers,” he said.

McDonald said when he first saw the results of the study, he was “surprised by the magnitude of the numbers.”

He added that the Medical Association of Georgia has taken note of the Hall project and is thinking about commissioning a statewide study on physicians’ economic impact.
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