Mercer medical program here a leap forward

Columbus has been growing in recognition and prestige as a regional health care center for some time now.

That fact has meant more than just the city becoming a destination for quality medical treatment. Health care is a growth industry -- part of a broader economic evolution and diversification that has sustained this former mill town during and since the collapse of the domestic textile empires.

Our local institutions of postsecondary education, specifically Columbus State University and Columbus Technical College, have been part of that growth, with nursing and medical technology training. The biggest missing piece is a medical school.

Columbus took a big step toward getting that piece last week, when Mercer University announced a partnership with The Medical Center and St. Francis Hospital to create a satellite medical school here.

The plan announced Friday calls for a Columbus campus of about 80 students, initially third- and fourth-year med students. As the first two years of medical school are mostly classroom work, that will continue at Mercer’s main campus in Macon, with students coming to the two Columbus hospitals for clinical work under a local medical faculty of about a dozen. Studies would be primarily at Columbus Regional for trauma, infant care and cancer, and at St. Francis for cardiology.

Ideally, of course, a full medical school in Columbus is the ultimate goal. That has already happened in Savannah, where a similar cooperative program begun in 2008 between Mercer and the Memorial University Medical Center eventually led to a full four-year program.

A medical training program here is appropriate for more reasons than just a large and expanding medical campus: As Mercer President Bill Underwood has pointed out, Columbus is the largest metro area in the state without some kind of med school. (Columbus had already had its fill of the “largest city without” distinction long before the Interstate Highway System finally got to town.)

There’s also the matter of need. Underwood noted in an earlier Ledger-Enquirer interview that Georgia ranked 40th among the states in physicians per capita; he added at the time that “we’re losing ground,” so the situation might have gotten worse since.

Certainly part of that woeful circumstance is the demographic and economic reality of rural southwest Georgia, where abject poverty and sparse access to any kind of health care, particularly physician care, are a chronic condition.

The development of a medical campus here certainly can’t hurt: In the 30 years of its existence, Mercer’s medical school has seen 70 percent of the more than 1,000 doctors it has graduated set up practice here in Georgia.

The new program, Underwood said, “will further enhance health care for the citizens of this region and help prepare much-needed physicians for our state.” Needed indeed.