Regents OK money for hospital residencies



ATLANTA — Hospitals in Athens and Lawrenceville won approval Wednesday for another installment of taxpayer funds to help them create residency courses for new physicians.

The state is trying to combat its doctor shortage by boosting the number it trains in medical school and the places they can go for their required hospital residencies after graduation. The medical school expansion is already in gear, and now the University System of Georgia is focused on additional residencies.

Wednesday, it granted $300,000 to St. Mary’s Health System of Athens and $350,000 to Gwinnett Medical System in Lawrenceville as a second aid installment. The state will pay up to half of the costs in hiring faculty, preparing curriculum and even building renovations required by the medical-specialty accreditation agencies.

Dr. Bruce Middendorf, the chief medical officer at St. Mary’s, acknowledged that taxpayer funding was critical.

“To be successful, we needed the jumpstart,” he said.

Once accreditation is granted, federal Medicare funds cover most of the ongoing expenses.

“We stress this: the second the first resident lands, our funding ends,” said Ben Robinson, the University System’s head of graduate medical education.

It typically takes four to six years to establish a residency program and earn accreditation.

“We do expect to see these people back year after year seeking funding,” said Dr. Ricardo Azziz, the president of Georgia Regents University, home of the state’s only public medical school.

St. Mary’s should be a natural fit for residents, Middendorf said, because of its close relationship with GRU and its partner the University of Georgia at their joint Athens campus. All of the medical students in Athens already experience their undergraduate internal-medicine rotation at the hospital, and those same 10 attending internal-medicine physicians will be instructing the residents once the program is operating.

He said the residencies could benefit more than just the physicians and the medical community but the whole area economy.

Dr. Jonathan Murrow, a cardiologist who’s the point man for Athens Regional Medical Center developing residency program, also attended the meeting of the University System’s Board of Regents. He said his program is also on pace to educate new doctors in various medical specialties.

His main task, though, is hiring faculty.

“The challenge is identifying the right person to fit in the culture of the program,” he said. “Being from Athens, from Georgia, I’m deeply committed to my home.”

Studies show that physicians are most likely to settle down where they participate in their residency, and even more so if they attend medical school in the same state.

However, there’s no guarantee the graduates of Georgia’s public and private medical schools can take advantage of the residency opportunities taxpayers are helping to create. That’s because one centralized computer assigns all students to the residency programs across the country, notes Dr. Tommy Hopkins, chair of the regents’ Graduate Medical Education Committee.

“We don’t know. These slots could be filled by graduates from Georgia or India or wherever,” he said.

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