Mercer University School of Medicine to expand to full four-year campus in Columbus
Columbus has been the state’s largest metro area without a four-year medical school program, and southwest Georgia — especially the rural parts of the region — has a critical deficit of doctors.
Friday, officials announced a plan to fill those needs.
The Mercer University School of Medicine will expand its two-year Columbus program into a full-fledged campus. It is scheduled to open in August 2021.
Mercer medical students have been doing clinical rotations with Columbus doctors for more than 20 years. In 2012, Mercer expanded its involvement in the local medical community by offering clinical education to third- and fourth-year medical students at Midtown Medical Center (now called Piedmont Columbus Regional) and St. Francis Hospital. That program has grown from 12 to 40 students in seven years.
Now, Mercer expects to eventually increase that number to 240 students in the downtown Columbus campus it will construct at a location officials declined to mention Friday because the real estate deal hasn’t closed. But people at Mercer and in Columbus involved with the project told the Ledger-Enquirer that the site will be what’s known as the Rothschild Building, a former Synovus call center at on 11th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
The current office for Mercer’s two-year program in Columbus is at 33 W. 11th St. The clinical rotations for third- and fourth-year medical students will continue at the Piedmont and St. Francis hospitals.
Mercer officials expect enrollment at the Columbus campus to eventually equal the university’s other two medical school campuses, since 1982 in Macon and since 2008 in Savannah.
Friday’s announcement in the lobby of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce was the culmination of an eight-year effort that launched this $25 million project through a public-private partnership.
“Today is a very vivid demonstration of the good that can come when local communities and institutions and our state government identify a problem and say we’re going to come together and solve this,” Mercer President Bill Underwood told the crowd.
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Jean Sumner, the Mercer medical school’s dean, described the problem this project will address.
“You have really good care, great care, in Columbus, and our students have a wonderful experience in Columbus,” she said. “The physicians and hospitals have been wonderful partners, but west Georgia and the surrounding areas of Columbus desperately need access to care and improved services. I hope our presence there will help grow that.”
Mercer’s medical school admits only Georgia residents. More than 65 percent of the school’s graduates have remained in the state as practicing doctors — and 80 percent of them practice in rural or underserved areas, which ranks third nationally, according to the university.
A 2019 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says 24 of the 30 counties in southwest Georgia have a health status ranked in the bottom of half of Georgia’s counties. Rural counties in the region have 16 physicians per 10,000 residents — 25 percent below the national average, according to 2017 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. More than half of the counties in the region don’t have a pediatrician, a psychiatrist or an obstetrician/gynecologist, according to 2019 data from the Georgia Board for Physician Workforce.
Opening the new medical school campus in Columbus is expected to amount to approximately $25 million in startup costs, Sumner said. That includes more than $9 million from the state and more than $14 million in private donations, she said.
Underwood thanked the initial group of community leaders who visited him in his office eight years ago to propose the project: attorney Pete Robinson, state Rep. Richard Smith and trustees Jimmy Elder, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church, and Tom Black, who died in 2014.
Underwood thanked the support from the hospitals and the quality of the clinical rotations they have provided Mercer medical students.
He also thanked members of the steering committee for securing the donations and the 60,000-square-foot facility for the future campus: Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce; Billy Blanchard, director of Jordan-Blanchard Capital; Steve Butler, retired chairman of W.C. Bradley; Russ Carreker, chairman of the Columbus Development Authority; Pace Halter, president and COO of W.C. Bradley Real Estate.; Marc R. Olivie, president and CEO of W.C. Bradley; Heath Schondelmayer, Columbus market president for Synovus Bank; Brad Turner, the Bradley-Turner Foundation; John Turner, chairman of the W.C. Bradley. and Jimmy Yancey, retired chairman of Synovus.
“I’m not sure there’s another community in Georgia that could have gotten that done,” Underwood said.
And he thanked Georgia House Speaker David Raltson (R-Blue Ridge) for the state funding from the legislature.
Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson told the crowd this project is a prime example of the public-private partnerships that have fueled the community’s progress.
“We didn’t create that term,” he said, “but I think we have come pretty close to perfecting it.”
The first class at the new Columbus campus in August 2021 is expected to have about 30 students, Sumner said. Each succeeding class will be larger until they reach the maximum of 60 students per class.
The hiring plan has a projection of more than 40 faculty members initially. The faculty will grow proportionately along with the number of students, Sumner said. An undetermined number of supporting staff positions also will be hired, she said.
“We may have some of our leadership in Columbus,” she said. “… I’ve had faculty come to me and say, ‘I’d love to move there.’”
Mercer medical student Russ Hopper, 24, of Pitts, Ga., can vouch for Columbus. He is two weeks away from graduating and has done his clinical rotations here. He’s been so impressed with his experience, he will do his residency in family medicine at Piedmont Columbus Regional and his wife, Sarah-Ann, teaches here, in the third grade at Wesley Heights Elementary School.
“Three years ago, I had never set foot in Columbus, and now, when I think about the future, Columbus is on my short list for where I want to practice one day,” Hopper said. “. . . Both hospital systems have been wonderful and welcoming to us, and the community — my wife and I love this community.”