ATHENS, Ga. — When she was interviewing four years ago to become the dean of the Athens branch campus of the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine, Dr. Barbara Schuster was shown an artist’s rendering of what would become the University of Georgia Health Sciences Campus.
“That vision sold me on this job,” she said.
On Wednesday, Schuster and others were able to show off the first part of that vision on what was the old Navy Supply Corps School campus. UGA, which works with Georgia Health Sciences University to operate what they call the “medical partnership” school, spent $11.4 million last fiscal year to renovate three main buildings for the medical school and the UGA College of Public Health for classrooms and administrative and faculty offices, said Kathy Pharr, the director of Health Sciences Campus Administration. The second phase of renovation, at $8.5 million, will add other services such as a student center and dining hall, she said.
More than 800 students, faculty members and staffers – including 120 medical students – will be moving to the campus next month. UGA President Michael Adams said talks about the branch medical school began in 2005 after he and then-MCG President Daniel W. Rahn approached then-Gov. Sonny Perdue about increasing the physician education in Georgia, which was 42nd in terms of physicians per 100,000 residents.
“We needed to do something about it,” Adams said. “We could not, in my opinion, stand by as access to well-trained physicians dwindled and the health of Georgians declined.”
A medical school and an engineering school had long been on Adams’ wish list to round out education and research at UGA. With the branch campus, the College of Public Health and the College of Engineering, two decades from now ,“this will be seen as one of the more significant periods of academic expansion in the University of Georgia’s history,” Adams said. In addition to training physicians, it should have a significant impact on research and economic development, he said.
“There’s a lot of federal research money that we’ve left on the table, frankly,” Adams said.
The Athens branch is enrolling 40 students per class for now, but the original vision for the expansion had it increasing to 60 per class sometime after its first graduation in 2014. Adams, who is retiring as UGA’s president, said that expansion will not be up to him. He said the school has already absorbed the cost of creating the infrastructure needed for expansion.
“What this is like now is really a very good small college campus,” Adams said. “As it expands, both the College of Public Health and the medical partnerships should expand through the years, but I am going to let somebody else tell you exactly when.”
After initial apprehension that third and fourth-year students wouldn’t be able to find the clinical rotations they need, the Athens school has been able to create clerkships across northeast Georgia, from Gwinnett County to Elberton, that include a diverse set of
physician practices, Schuster said. Those are “important models for our students to see,” she said, and could lead more to consider that kind of needed practice. Establishing residencies in the area is still probably two to four years away, Schuster said.
The Athens building renovation allows the school to offer more small group learning and other innovative teaching approaches. As a third-year student, Paul Baker is just beginning his clinical rotations at Athens Regional Medical Center. Though being the first group through has had its challenges, it has also been rewarding, he said.
“We’re the trailblazers,” he said. “It is really exciting to feel like you are building something that wasn’t there before.”