Doing what's best

Augustans never were against expanding the state medical school to Athens and beyond.

We just didn't want Augusta bypassed in the process.

A new study would seem to allay those concerns by calling for the Medical College of Georgia to be maximized in Augusta while a satellite campus opens at the old U.S. Navy Supply Corps School near the University of Georgia.

The Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Tripp Umbach compiled the study at the behest of lawmakers who deadlocked over how to move forward with a strategy to educate more doctors for practice in Georgia.

Should the state help enable the Medical College of Georgia to expand and maximize its educational and clinical resources in Augusta? Or should it cooperate with a plan that the University of Georgia had for years but didn't publicly admit until December 2005 -- to open another medical school in Athens?

The study, it turns out, appears on the surface to have something for everybody. It professes to sit foursquare behind the concept of MCG expansion here in Augusta to its maximum capacity, which is a must. And it proposes expanding the opportunities and missions of an existing MCG clinical campus in Albany and a similar one planned for Savannah, which is logical.

The emphasis it places on the importance of opening an MCG satellite campus at the site of Athens' former U.S. Navy Supply Corps School is perhaps no surprise. While Tripp Umbach began its study in September -- and while the House Medical Education Study Subcommittee held hearings -- MCG and UGA officials decided to move forward to plan the Athens expansion. Indeed, the idea has the air of inevitability about it, especially as Georgia's population both booms and ages. Fact is, the study's plan may even fall short of what's necessary statewide long-term.

The main thing, though, is the study's logical conclusion that MCG must be expanded to its natural limit in Augusta. It just wouldn't make sense to expand anywhere else without taking full advantage of Augusta's vast medical network.

Precisely what Augusta has said all along.

We do take issue with the proposal that the same company that performed the study should now be hired at thousands more to help sell the plan. Shouldn't a truly great idea about expanding medical education be able to virtually sell itself in Georgia without resorting to an expensive public relations blitz?

Also, what happened to a genuinely vigorous push to expand residency slots for the doctors we have? Maybe a dozen or so sentences in the 48-page study deal with the importance of expanding residency slots. But several pages are dedicated to making the case for expanding a satellite campus in Athens.

Even if the state signed off on expanding medical satellite campuses to every city, town and four-way traffic stop in Georgia, that offers no guarantee that in-state-educated physicians will stay in Georgia. We need to retain doctors for residency with at least the same zeal we have for creating new doctors.

The report, however, does a good job of underscoring the importance of growing the number of physicians in Georgia. Right now, the state sits 40th in the nation in terms of per-capita physicians. If significant investment isn't placed in the medical education system, Georgia will sit at the bottom of that heap by 2020.

So the important thing to remember is not to be reflexively defensive about an MCG expansion into Athens. Not if you follow a sensible strategy for growth:

- Keep doggedly working toward maxing out the Augusta campus to accommodate the goal number of 240 medical students, as soon as possible.

- Whatever happens -- whether it's in Athens, Albany or Savannah -- all expansions must fall fully under the control of MCG and its president. An MCG presence in Athens should not be allowed to become, as many dread, a foot in the door for UGA to grow its own independent medical school.

- Build quality medical programs of nationwide renown and importance. Choosing areas of specialization and committing to excellence in them is key to health-care expansion in Augusta.

Change is coming. That point of debate isn't even on the table anymore.

The issue at hand is creating a statewide solution for Georgia's medical needs -- and keeping Augusta and the Medical College of Georgia as its centerpiece.

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