Health

Georgia Fights Rural Doctor Shortage By Targeting Medical Students

Georgia is looking to medical students to help combat a critical doctor shortage in rural Georgia, where six counties have no physician at all, pediatricians are missing in 63 counties, and 79 counties do not have an OB-GYN, according to a state commission report released this week.
Georgia is looking to medical students to help combat a critical doctor shortage in rural Georgia, where six counties have no physician at all, pediatricians are missing in 63 counties, and 79 counties do not have an OB-GYN, according to a state commission report released this week.
Credit Gerald Herbert / Associated Press file

Brittany Chandler had a busy night shift. The first-year resident in the pediatric unit at Navicent Health medical center in Macon saw seven new admissions.

“Everything from seizures to a baby that stopped breathing, it was a busy night,” she said.

The baby started breathing again after about a minute, and now doctors have to figure out what was wrong, she said.

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Chandler is getting a lot of experience here and wants to stay in pediatrics when her residency ends in two years. She does not know exactly where she will end up, but she knows it will be in a small town in Georgia.

“I would love to open my own practice in a rural Georgia community,” she said.

Chandler made a deal with the state of Georgia — a scholarship in exchange for working four years in a rural setting.

It’s part of the state’s effort to combat a critical doctor shortage in rural Georgia, where six counties have no physician at all, pediatricians are missing in 63 counties, and 79 counties do not have an OB-GYN, according to a state commission report released this week.

The arrangement Chandler made with Mercer University’s School of Medicine is called the Nathan Deal Scholarship and is available to about 30 students a year. For Chandler, who grew up in Jefferson, Georgia, it is not a burden to work in a rural setting, and she will be debt-free.

“I don’t consider it a service obligation. I’m just excited because the scholarship requires going to rural Georgia. But for me, that was my desire and calling,” she said.

Mercer University’s School of Medicine only takes students like Chandler. They must be Georgia residents for at least 10 years and preferably from a small town.

The idea is that medical students from small towns are more likely to forgo the big city.

“We’re looking for young people that are committed to our state, committed to rural practice and committed to service,” said Jean Sumner, dean of the Mercer School of Medicine. “We put a lot of emphasis on that selection process,” she said.

Sumner has had a long career as a doctor in a small town herself and wants to change the image of rural medicine as a thankless job for physicians.

“There is a myth out there that you can’t survive. And that myth is propagated, but it’s not based on scientific data,” she said.

In fact, one study published last year shows rural doctors can earn up to 13 percent more than their urban counterparts did. Some of that is due to signing bonuses, but Sumner says doctors need to be recruited by small communities just like businesses.

“We want industrial authorities and economic development people to realize that recruiting physician care to a community is an industry,” she said.

Supporting rural businesses is one reason the state is funding these medical school scholarships, but they are not enough to fill the need, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“That’s only a small drop in the bucket, but it is an effective way to get providers to start practicing in those areas at least for a few years,” said Laura Harker, health policy analyst at GBPI.

Harker says Georgia needs to invest in more residency slots at hospitals here so more talent can be trained locally, be less likely to leave and will help fill the state’s physician shortfall.