Richard Hyatt: A medical school comes to Columbus

July 17, 2012 

Columbus Regional and St. Francis have wasted a lot of time fussing when they should have been caring for the sick, but this week the dueling hospitals embarked on a project that has inspired them to put down their scalpels.

The presence of a medical school in Columbus is something the two facilities can celebrate, and over the past five months, they've joined forces to prepare for the arrival of 14 third-year students from the Mercer University School of Medicine.

For years the hospitals have engaged in turf wars that never made sense to anyone outside the upper echelons of the medical community. Proponents of the medical school somehow crossed bridges that no one thought were there.

Dr. David Mathis, an assistant dean and 1986 Mercer Medical School graduate, said leaders of the hospitals have openly acknowledged that they haven't always worked together and that the alliances formed by this project are a positive step.

Though progress has been made, students are spending this week filling out mounds of repetitive paperwork required to do business at the two facilities. "If there are duplications, we've advised the students to be patient," Mathis said.

Since 1982, Mercer has prepared physicians to practice medicine in underserved areas of Georgia on their traditional campus in Macon. Four years ago, an auxiliary campus opened in Savannah and plans to expand into Columbus were announced in February.

For now, the school is housed at the Bradley Center. A student coordinator will be hired and distant-learning facilities are being installed. Mathis will be based in Macon but will spend a lot of time here.

"The hospitals and the doctors in Columbus have been so welcoming," Mathis said. "Each hospital appointed a lead physician, and they've been extremely helpful."

Dr. John Bucholtz, a family-practice physician, represents the Medical Center. Dr. Luther Wolff III, an orthopedic surgeon, is the St. Francis appointee. A team of local doctors will serve as mentors.

Mercer's mission is unique. It accepts only students from Georgia and encourages graduates to practice in the state. After 30 years, two out of every three graduates are practicing in Georgia. This is crucial around Columbus, where 25 percent of the physicians are age 55 or older.

Three of the medical students answering the roll this week are Columbus residents: Michael Sims along with sisters, Sarah and Arshia Khan. By next week, the students will put on their white coats and get to work.

The Mercer project has already reaped rewards but the future is even brighter. For a town on the cusp of some of the most depressed counties in the country, the hope of improved health care is vital.And the fact that disparate factions are on speaking terms for the first time is a bonus no one saw coming.

­-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent He is also found at www.richardhyattcolumbus.com.

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