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Message from the Dean: Zero to 120 in Four Years

Originally housed in the former UGA Lamar Dodd School of Art building on Baldwin Street, I arrived in Athens in early November 2008 joining one other appointed faculty member and two individuals who had been active in the planning process.   Although our work space was stark and we were lacking basic office supplies, we focused on the most pressing goal: preparing to welcome 40 students in August 2010.  Our “to do” list was long and wide-ranging, including hiring faculty and staff, preparing a building undergoing renovation to house the program, developing an innovative curriculum, connecting with UGA faculty and the medical community, and providing  tours and information for potential students and interested community supporters.  When I have a quiet moment to reflect on the last 4 ½ years, I am both amazed and overjoyed by what the faculty, staff, and the Athens community have been able to achieve.

In early 2007, the Georgia General Assembly approved funding to study expanding public medical education in the state.  In January 2008, the consulting firm of Tripp Umbach presented its study and proposal to the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia which stated that there was an urgent need to increase the number of physicians in the State of Georgia, and a decision was made to begin expansion of the Medical College of Georgia, Georgia’s only public medical school. The expansion would occur by developing regional clinical campuses (presently in Savannah, Albany, and Rome) and a four-year campus in Athens in partnership with the University of Georgia.

The Medical Partnership campus would be the most time efficient and cost effective way to rapidly expand the size of the public medical school’s class from 190 to 230 students and would additionally facilitate the expansion of clinical and translational biomedical research at the University of Georgia by having a geographically convenient medical campus.  A Memorandum of Understanding, which serves as the agreement between the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) (now MCG at Georgia Regents University) and the University of Georgia, was signed by the then presidents of both institutions and the Chancellor in February 2009.

The Medical Partnership Campus is accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) as a branch campus of the Medical College of Georgia. However, the Partnership campus has been granted ‘separate track’ designation which allows the campus flexibility in curriculum organization and presentation as long as the ‘core competencies’ are the same as the Augusta campus.  Given the ‘separate track’ flexibility, the Athens campus designed and now executes a predominately small group, case-based, interactive curriculum. This method of education requires active learning by students and faculty who must work collaboratively in integrated and cross disciplinary teams.

While we started with only four team members in 2008, the Medical Partnership now includes 25 full-time faculty, 18 part-time paid faculty, more than 180 volunteer clinical faculty, a part-time medical illustrator, and 11 full-time administrative staff with additional administrative staff and faculty under recruitment. Twenty-four months after we started, 40 medical students began their studies in Athens, and we currently have 120 students attending classes on the UGA Health Sciences Campus.

The Medical Partnership has become well integrated into northeast Georgia. Living alongside University of Georgia students has provided opportunities to become engaged on the main UGA campus.  Medical Partnership students participate in UGA intramurals.  The Partnership all-female soccer team won the 2011 All-Campus Intramural Soccer Championship.  For the third year in a row, first and second year students participated in the annual Dawgtoberfest, a health fair for UGA faculty, staff, and students that is coordinated by the UGA College of Pharmacy students.  Many Medical Partnership students act as mentors for pre-medical students in a variety of capacities, including work with AWIS (Association of Women in Science), speaking at pre-medical honors society meetings, and organizing social events that bring together pre-med and current medical students to provide advice and encouragement in a casual environment.  

A group of community volunteers, coached by members of the UGA Theater Department, and UGA theater students role-play simulated patients allowing students to begin skill building in simulated physician-patient encounters. In addition to the ongoing partnership with the UGA Department of Theater, students in the Grady College of Journalism Health and Medical Journalism program have been documenting the Medical Partnership program and its students since the first day of classes in August 2010.  The video documentaries and print stories can be found on “The Med School Project” website.

Concern for the well-being of others in north Georgia has inspired the medical students to coordinate fundraisers to financially support organizations such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Mercy Health Clinic, and the Children’s Specialty Services Clinic.  Currently plans are underway for student-run fundraisers in the spring which will support the Loran Smith Cancer Center and the Boys and Girls Club.

On Wednesday evenings, the medical students and faculty of the Partnership staff the Mercy Health Clinic located a few blocks away from the UGA Health Sciences Campus. Each December, the students “adopt” the kindergarten classes at Fowler Drive Elementary School, and every child receives a present to open, full of donated toys and goodies that are collected by the medical students.  Multiple “Teddy Bear Clinics” have taken place in elementary schools across Athens-Clarke County, which allows children to interact in a casual setting with future doctors.  After “examining” a sick teddy bear, the medical students show the children how to properly wash their hands, how to cough and not spread germs, and why it is important to exercise. 

A formal relationship with the UGA College of Public Health has launched an official MD/MPH program, and the first student participating in the program is immersed in her second semester of MPH classes.  Last summer, she spent six weeks in Haifa, Israel studying Global Health Systems and is hoping to study in Kiev this summer working with the World Health Organization.  Three MCG students, including one who began his medical studies in Athens, are completing a PhD in departments at UGA.

While education was the first priority of the Medical Partnership, research is an expectation of a four-year medical campus and creating research synergies is an expectation of the Partnership.  Several medical faculty have linked with colleagues in four of the UGA colleges, participating in a variety of research endeavors. In addition to the faculty, the medical students are becoming actively involved in summer research projects with UGA, MCG, and community faculty.  Several community faculty in Northeast Georgia are significantly involved in outstanding clinical research projects. The student/community faculty collaborations are the beginning of a transformation that will bring thoughtful and quality innovation to medical care in our community.    

Our first class of students, members of the Class of 2014, recently completed their first semester of the third year curriculum which includes rotations in seven core clinical specialties and a rotation in Palliative Care.  These students work with physicians across north Georgia in locations including Gwinnett County, Winder, Gainesville, Elberton, Comer, and Athens. 

They are busy preparing for their fourth year and the decision of which medical or surgical specialty they will pursue.   Their final year will provide several significant milestones for the Medical Partnership, including executing a full 4 year medical curriculum in Athens, the first time Athens students will ‘match’ for postgraduate (resident) positions, and the celebration  of the first graduation of the Partnership students

 For now we are catching our breath from the adventure of moving from zero to 120.  Each step in the process has been challenging and exciting and we remain focused on the overall goal: educating Georgia’s next generation of doctors.  The students who walk the corridors of Russell Hall and work with patients around northeast Georgia will soon be providing medical care for us and our community.  Our work is far from complete but what was once an idea of two university presidents and a proposal from a consultant, is now a reality with a permanent home on the Health Sciences Campus and the recruitment of our fourth class of 40 students, the Class of 2017.

- by Campus Dean Barbara L. Schuster