A health care crisis is spreading throughout Georgia’s rural communities.
Georgia ranks among the 10 worst states for most health measures, with some of the highest incidents of stroke, heart disease and cancer in the nation. To make matters worse, much of the state lacks access to primary care services, making Georgia worse than the national average for areas short of primary care doctors.
As Georgia’s population gets older and more physicians retire, the entire state is facing a looming physician shortage and rural areas are disproportionately affected. According to the Georgia Board of Health Care Workforce, 60 of the state’s 159 counties have no pediatrician; 76 are without an obstetrician or gynecologist; 18 have no family medicine physician; 32 with no internist; 74 do not have a general surgeon; and nine counties have no doctor at all.
To combat this problem, the Medical College of Georgia has developed a 3+ Primary Care Pathway that will help place doctors where they are needed most in the state. This pathway shortens the traditional MD curriculum to three years instead of four and, if funded, will provide free tuition or student loan forgiveness to students who commit to a primary care residency and agree to serve in an underserved area for six years.
“As the state of Georgia’s only public academic health center and a leader in health care policy, Augusta University and the Medical College of Georgia are committed to improved health for all Georgians,” said Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel, PhD. “That statewide commitment is evidenced in the patients we treat, the education we provide and the research solutions we develop.”
The medical school is remodeling its curriculum so that all students at MCG’s main campus in Augusta will complete the core MD curriculum in three years, but most students will spend their fourth years getting ready for residency, doing research or completing a dual degree. While only a percentage of students will be enrolled in the 3+ Primary Care Pathway MCG Dean Dr. David Hess anticipates a statewide impact.
“As the state’s only public medical school, it is our duty to ensure a Georgia that is healthy, both physically and economically,” adds Hess. “The physician shortage, especially in underserved areas, is a huge problem that’s only going to worsen over time. We know that primary care physicians not only improve a community’s overall health by preventing and managing chronic conditions on an outpatient basis, but they also bring jobs and other businesses with them. By placing more of these physicians in underserved areas, we’ll be ensuring a healthy future for every corner of our state.”
Augusta University Health is also expanding its reach in rural Georgia with telemedicine, a technology that brings doctors and patients together in real time via a computer screen.
From anchoring Georgia’s first emergency telehealth network to developing a pregnancy care app for new moms, AU Health is using technology to improve patient outcomes.
Hess, a neurologist and stroke specialist, helped to successfully establish REACH Health, a nationally recognized telemedicine service that makes neurological consults available to patients in rural areas. Using a standard computer, webcam and broadband internet connection, AU Health neurologists are able to diagnose and treat stroke patients at participating hospitals in real time.
AU Health is also providing patients access to some of the nation’s top emergency medical specialists, thanks to a $368,501 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued early last year to create Georgia’s first emergency telehealth network. Emergency room patients in five rural Georgia hospitals will be able to receive treatment the second they come in the door.
When it comes to women’s health disparities, AU Health is also using telemedicine to close the gap.
Georgia ranks the worst in the nation for maternal mortality and half of the state’s counties have no OB-GYNs. In light of these recent reports on this growing health crisis, Dr. Marlo Vernon, an assistant professor in Cancer Control, Prevention, and Population Health in the Georgia Cancer Center, is developing the Vida app to give doctors real-time patient data, including sudden changes in blood pressure or self-reported mental health.
As it pertains to infertility, Dr. Larisa Gavrilova- Jordan, director of the In-Vitro Fertilization Service and the Fertility Preservation Program at AU Health, launched a clinical service offering patients a telemedicine option of assisted reproductive technology (ART) treatments. Her data showed a drop in treatment cost and the number of office visits while maintaining high rates of clinical pregnancies and live births. There was also an increase in access to ART for residents in central Georgia.
Katrina Keefer, CEO of Augusta University Health and executive vice president for health affairs at Augusta University, says the wide range of rural health programs being concurrently deployed demonstrates the health system’s dedication to improving patient outcomes across Georgia.
“We are aware of the challenges our rural patients and providers face, which is why we are putting effort into building a robust rural health program,” said Keefer. “We will continue to engage in rural communities and serve as high quality partners providing care in Georgia’s rural and underserved areas.”
Learn more about Augusta University’s Center for Rural Health and its initiatives.