To ensure a dynamic future, the state’s public medical school must work to stabilize and transform its own health system and lead efforts to develop a unique statewide academic health system, that builds on its statewide campus network, to foster clinical and research collaborations.
It also must work to address and improve the health of rural Georgians and continue to build its research infrastructure as well, said Dr. David Hess, Dean of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.
In his inaugural State of the College Address Friday, Hess laid out a Blueprint for our Future that recognized the medical school’s accomplishments, including recruiting outstanding students, maintaining an impressive academic program and efforts to increase student diversity, but he also outlined what he believes are its impending challenges.
Among those is the need to realign, integrate and de-silo Augusta University Health, the medical school’s health system. “The major source for a medical school’s funding in the U.S. is its health system,” Hess said. “Research and education never pay for themselves, especially with declining federal funding and a hypercompetitive funding climate. It’s imperative that AU Health be successful. To do that, we must work as a system, not as departments. Otherwise we’ll die on the vine.”
Encouraging that success includes providing patients better access to clinicians, including basics like same-day or next-day appointments and valet parking, and addressing the fundamental problem of a small clinical faculty. “The basic problem is that there aren’t enough of you,” Hess said. “We are too small and often have to rely on volunteer faculty to fill the gaps.”
Access to a healthy hospital system is key to improving the health of the population it serves – an essential part of the medical school’s mission. But MCG must work to improve the health of all Georgians, not just those in close proximity to its home base in Augusta, he said. “We are the only public medical school in Georgia and we are expected to address this. It’s our responsibility.”
Doing so must be a multi-pronged approach, including forming a task force to determine the best ways to improve Georgia’s overall health status, working with rural hospitals to help alleviate a diminishing workforce, improving access to health care through telemedicine and encouraging interprofessional collaborations to address the shortage of health care providers in many of the state’s rural areas.
“From Richmond County all the way down to southwest Georgia, those are some of the places with the worst health ratings,” Hess told the crowd. “You don’t have to go to Africa to see these types of issues. Global health is in our own backyard. We must focus on improving the population health of Georgia.”
MCG’s newest department – Population Health Sciences, which was formed by combining the former Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and the Georgia Prevention Institute – hopes to help do just that. Through collaborations with agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health, the new department will help answer questions like which Georgians are getting sick, what they have and why, and which targeted interventions and treatments are most effective for them. Those collaborations will also give way to expanded research opportunities, something that’s essential to growing the medical school’s funding and National Institutes of Health rankings.
Hess outlined a goal of moving MCG from 71st among U.S. medical schools in NIH grants to 65th within the next five years – by recruiting and retaining top faculty, leveraging existing awards like two recent NIH Program Project Grants totaling nearly $19 million and focusing on collaborations and “hot beds” for federal funding like cancer and personalized medicine.
“We have to bite this big goal off into bits we can chew,” Hess said. “It is achievable, we just have to get the flywheel turning and keep it moving. We must continue work addressing health issues where there’s significant funding to be had.”
One of those areas – aging – will be the focus for the university’s new Center for Healthy Aging, led by Dr. Carlos Isales, vice chair of the MCG Department of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine. The center will focus basic science, translational research and clinical studies on the musculoskeletal problems aging brings, like osteoporosis, and brain health issues that come as well, like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“Georgia has one of the nation’s fastest growing rates of citizens over age 50, but there is no single comprehensive center in the state focused on aging,” Hess said. “The problems that come with aging are complex and will be the focus of a lot of NIH and philanthropic funding.”
Hess also announced possible plans for a Georgia Research Institute for Translational Health Science, which would serve as a sort of front entrance for researchers to help them connect with potential collaborators across the state, as well as help young researchers develop. It could also help foster a collaboration that, with AU’s recent focus on cyber security and partnership with information technology giant Cerner Corporation, could help them mine theirs and other’s health data and better predict health outcomes and target treatments.
“It could help us answer questions about which patients who come to the ER with complications from diabetes will end up coming back, or which patients’ cancers will progress,” Hess said. “We need to find ways to use the health information that we gather better.”