Expansion of campus at forefront of changes

Kendrick Brinson/Staff
Dan Rahn: President of the Medical College of Georgia says land and lots of funding are needed to expand MCG's campus.

Medical College of Georgia President Daniel W. Rahn joked that he might hibernate through the end of the year.

"I'd like to get a few days of sleep between now and the first," he said with a laugh. He's going to need it.

In just the first few months of 2008, the school and medical education in Georgia will face crucial decisions that could shape the future for both. In January, consultant Tripp Umbach will likely deliver its report on expanding medical education in Georgia to the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. That report will probably touch on expanding medical education both at the flagship campus in Augusta and at other places in the state, including a satellite campus of the School of Medicine in Athens in conjunction with the University of Georgia, Dr. Rahn said.

"I think that will be a part of a multi component expansion," Dr. Rahn said. "But the foundation of expansion is growth here, and maximizing what we are able to do in Augusta. And then, at the same time, partnering for the purposes of expansion that cannot be accommodated here."

As part of its Augusta growth, MCG will have to figure out a way in the next few months to acquire the neighboring Gilbert Manor public housing area, he said.

"That would enable us to really have the footprint that we need to be able to expand here in Augusta," Dr. Rahn said. "What we need to do in the first quarter of 2008 is we need to have an agreement about what the strategy is going to be. I don't know that we have to have everything done at that juncture."

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver has floated the idea of the city issuing bonds and purchasing the property to donate to MCG, an idea that Dr. Rahn welcomed.

"We're very excited about the potential of the city partnering with us because we think that's a really important step to enable us to expand here," he said. "And we do believe that the health benefit is huge but the economic impact on the region will be enormous as well."

The property could provide space for a new building for the School of Dentistry, potentially in conjunction with a medical commons that would house a new home for the School of Medicine. Also in the first few months of next year, the Georgia Legislature will consider a request from the Regents for $70 million to build the new dental school. The L egislature will likely be asked to further fund exploring the expansion of medical education in the state.

"We are going to need incremental funding, not just in the next state budget but also in years beyond that if we're to be able to expand," Dr. Rahn said. "We need to finalize what we're going to be able to do here in Augusta, and then also that's the time during which probably it will become clear whether the funding will be present for the dental school."

If that weren't enough, the school also gets a re accreditation visit in January that could determine whether it can expand the medical school class from 190 to 200 students a year.

"I think this next 90 to 120 days are going to be a very active time," Dr. Rahn said.

A couple of key reports for MCG will also come in the early months of 2008. The House Medical Education Study Committee, led by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, will likely issue its report after it hears what the consultant Tripp Umbach has to say.

"I think we'll wait and see what (it) says because I think that's probably a very important component of what we were trying to figure out ourselves," Mr. Fleming said.

One outcome from the committee's work could be an effort to boost the number of state medical residency slots , where medical students finish their training after graduation. Where a doctor does his or her residency often influences where they stay to practice, Mr. Fleming said.

"We all recognize that could be a very important way that we keep more doctors in the state, just keeping more of the ones we already graduate," he said.

A consultant is also expected to report back on the potential for residencies in the Athens and Gainesville areas, where there are almost none. The first part of the report, due around the beginning of the year, will be to see whether there is support for the residency programs among the health systems in the area before specific planning can take place on what type of residency and where it will go, said Ben Robinson, the executive director of the Georgia Board for Physician Workforce. Residency programs are seen as a key component of educating medical students because residents spend a lot of time teaching students.

If everything seems to be coming to a head at once, it certainly needs to, Dr. Rahn said. The state's ranking in the number of physicians per 100,000 people dropped from 38th to 40th in the latest listing from the Association of American Medical Colleges. The state is 44th when looking at the number of primary care physicians per 100,000 residents.

"We continue to fall behind due in large part to the continued growth of the population, which is good, it's a good thing for the state," Dr. Rahn said. "But we really need to get on with it and we need to be aggressive in our strategies for expansion."

Though it might be a frenetic time, it means things are happening, he said.

"I share the mayor's enthusiasm about the future in Augusta and the extraordinary number of really exciting initiatives that are underway," Dr. Rahn said. "So we're really looking forward to a good year."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.