UPDATE: Mercer University to partner with St. Francis Hospital, The Medical Center for medical campus

Prestige for the community aside, perhaps the biggest advantage of locating a Mercer University School of Medicine satellite campus in Columbus is the five-star physician “recruits” it might attract.

That was one of the most descriptive analogies offered up Friday as Macon, Ga.-based Mercer made it official at the Columbus Public Library news conference that it is partnering with The Medical Center and St. Francis Hospital on a two-year doctor training program after 18 months of discussions and logistical planning.

St. Francis President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Granger pointed out college football is king in the South and that everyone understands how difficult it is to recruit the elite players to universities such as Auburn, Alabama and elsewhere.

“Medical school graduates are much like those five-star recruits. They can go anywhere that they want to go. They have plenty of opportunities to choose where they want to practice,” said Granger, explaining the national shortage in health-care specialties.

Georgia, in fact, ranks 37th in the U.S. in terms of physicians per capital. A quarter of doctors in the state are 55 or older. At the same time, the number of Georgians over age 65 is expected to double in the next two decades.

“It is vital to the long-term success of our community that we bring those physicians here to practice and replace those physicians that we have that are retiring, and to meet the needs of the aging Baby Boomer population in our community,” Granger said.

Mercer and the two Columbus hospitals believe that will be the case as physician students complete their third- and fourth-year clinical rotations locally, then bond with the community and return after receiving their specialty degrees.

“We retain more of our graduates in the state of Georgia than any of the other medical schools in this state and, in fact, rank second of the 160 medical schools nationally in the percentage of graduates retained in the home state of that school,” said Mercer President William Underwood of the university’s School of Medicine, which was founded in 1982. It trains only Georgia residents.

It will be six months before the first 12 students arrive from Mercer, where they have had their first two years of classroom studies. They are expected to split their time between The Medical Center, which is owned by Columbus Regional Healthcare System, and St. Francis Hospital.

The goal is to grow that number to 24 in the second year and eventually ramp it up to 80. At some point, if everything goes smoothly, thoughts will turn toward a four-year bricks-and-mortar campus in Columbus, perhaps something similar to that in Savannah, where Mercer already has a full medical training operation.

That was part of the discussion in August 2010 when a delegation from Columbus approached the university about locating a campus here. The group included First Baptist Church Pastor Jimmy Elder and businessman Tom Black, both members of Mercer’s board of trustees. Also there was Georgia State Rep. Richard Smith and Pete Robinson, Columbus resident and chairman of Atlanta-based lobbying firm Troutman Sanders Strategies.

“I was intrigued in knowing what I know about Columbus and the can-do attitude and spirit here,” Underwood said. “I told them that should this initial step prove successful, and should there be adequate support in the community for taking the next step of opening a full four-year medical school campus, we’d be willing to explore that possibility as well.”

On Friday, Elder said the fruits of those talks with the university president led to the final decision by all involved to move forward. It showed both Columbus and Mercer at their “finest,” he said, also pointing out the local institution will be heavily into medical research.

“Every once in a while you’ll find perfect suitors for something to take place,” Elder said. “With Mercer’s spirit and its ability, with Columbus and the spirit here, and with the spirit from the hospitals, we saw the most beautiful merging of minds, ideas and spirits that you’ve ever seen.”

Black called it a “stellar day” for the city to see Columbus Regional and St. Francis — who at times can be intense competitors in the local health-care sector — putting any rivalry aside for the better good of the community.

“I think it’s going to mean great things for Mercer, for our two hospitals, and the city of Columbus,” Black said.Smith, who recalled having a cup of coffee with Robinson and pondering what next great thing could happen in Columbus, then thinking of a medical school, said Mercer’s presence here will change the quality of life for residents for years to come. He also threw out a motivational phrase: “Without leaps of dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibility. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”

Mike Gaymon, president and CEO of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, ticked off memorable moments in the city’s history — construction of the Chattahoochee Riverwalk, landing women’s fast-pitch softball during the 1996 Summer Olympics, and launching a technology course to train programmers for credit-card processor TSYS.

“This is a game-changing opportunity for our region,” he said. “We think today’s announcement will be one of those significant events.”

Mercer University School of Medicine Dean Bill Bina said the Columbus campus will have the mission of educating doctors to serve not only here, but in rural and underserved areas of the state.

“Our goal is to improve medical education, enhance residency training experience, and meet the needs of the Columbus community,” he said.

Lance Duke, president and CEO of The Medical Center, noted that his hospital has long been a training ground. It established the first family practice residency program in Georgia in 1972.

“We’ve trained hundreds of physicians over that period of time and over 80 physicians in our region received part of their training at The Medical Center residency program,” he said. “This is for the community good, for the region’s good, and benefits both health systems and both hospitals.”

Dr. John Bucholtz, director of Medical Eduction and the Family Practice Residency Program at The Medical Center, has been heavily involved in the planning process thus far. He said Mercer will likely set up offices at The Bradley Center in Columbus, with staff also having space at each hospital.

However, the march toward a four-year campus will take time, he stressed, with this first step leading to higher enrollment and more faculty. There’s much work to be done, he said, but enthusiasm is high.

“The doctors that I talk to are very excited about this. Everybody wants to get involved with it,” he said.

Mercer School of Medicine has graduated more than 1,000 physicians since its founding 30 years ago. It currently has about 400 medical doctor students enrolled.

Columbus Regional and St. Francis both have grown steadily with Columbus developing into a regional health-care hub. St. Francis is well known for its cardiology treatment and care, while Columbus Regional owns Doctors Hospital and The Medical Center. Its specialties include a regional trauma center, high-risk infant care and cancer treatment.