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A major initiative launched by Mercer University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to improve pediatric health care in rural Georgia will initially involve hospitals, pediatricians and school systems representing 11 rural Georgia counties. School of Medicine and Children’s leadership announced the community partners during a Feb. 23 news conference in Heritage Hall of the University Center on Mercer’s Macon campus. Gov. Brian Kemp previously announced the affiliation between the School of Medicine and Children’s on Feb. 22 at the Georgia State Capitol.
The affiliation between the School of Medicine and Children’s will be funded by a dedicated and long- term sustainable fund of $200 million that the Children’s Board of Trustees allocated in 2022.
“I believe this is a transformational opportunity for the state of Georgia and rural children,” School of Medicine Dean Dr. Jean R. Sumner said. “It also aligns perfectly with MUSM’s mission to meet the primary care and health needs of rural medically underserved areas of Georgia, to which we are committed.
“We could not be more honored and grateful to work with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to bring support and opportunity for care to the children of Georgia’s rural counties. Children’s is a critically important, pediatric health care system that is a treasure. The goal of this initiative is to improve access to pediatric medical care close to home and ultimately to help improve the lives of Georgia’s rural kids.”
One of the top priorities that Mercer has already identified is an urgent need for more pediatricians throughout Georgia. To help increase access to pediatricians in rural counties, Children’s is funding 10 full-tuition scholarships in 2023 through a program at the School of Medicine for medical students specializing in pediatrics who commit to serving in rural Georgia for at least four years after residency.
“We are thrilled to be working with Mercer University School of Medicine. They are a trusted partner in our rural communities and well-suited to guide us in addressing the needs of Georgia’s children. We are confident that together we can make an impact for kids and families across Georgia,” said Donna Hyland, CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
In addition, the affiliation will allow the School of Medicine to leverage its demonstrated understanding of the health care needs of rural communities to conduct and evaluate the pilot programs. Children’s will provide the specialized pediatric clinical knowledge needed to launch and sustain those programs, which aim to provide support for rural hospitals, rural pediatricians, and pediatric behavioral and mental health.
“As a pediatrician practicing in a rural area, I am thrilled about the collaboration between Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Mercer School of Medicine,” said Dr. Jennifer Tarbutton, chair of the School of Medicine’s Board of Governors. “Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is recognized as a premier provider of pediatric care in the nation, and as a graduate of their pediatric residency program, I know firsthand how valuable the education from this program is. This collaboration and Mercer’s planned pilots are the first step to creating access to educational opportunities and top-quality specialists for pediatricians in rural Georgia.
“I am also a proud graduate of the School of Medicine and also know firsthand how committed Mercer is to educate physicians who work in rural areas to provide high quality medical care to all ages. In addition, Mercer continues to work in areas of research to understand the disparities in health and to find the best solutions to correct these differences. The state of Georgia is fortunate to have both Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Mercer School of Medicine working together to strengthen pediatric care across our state.”
Rural hospitals currently face a challenge in their ability to treat and keep pediatric patients in their communities. To better prepare rural hospitals to respond to pediatric patients in the emergency departments, the new initiative will assist rural hospitals with meeting a set of criteria to be considered “Kid Ready.” This project involves eight rural hospitals, including Coffee Regional Medical Center.
In addition, rural pediatricians are often isolated with little access to subspecialty support, after-hours support, and regular clinical updates. The initiative will provide physician-to-physician support and offer provider training. In addition, the School of Medicine will conduct a needs assessment to determine core training needs. This project involves five rural pediatricians, incouding Dr. Jennifer Stroud of Coffee County.
“Leaving our community for care is often a barrier to care. Having a pediatric-ready hospital in Douglas, Georgia, will allow Coffee Regional Medical Center to better address the many health and wellness challenges our patients, families and pediatricians face every day,” said Vicki Lewis, president and CEO of Coffee Regional Medical Center. “The significant impact on the lives of children in rural South Georgia that Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta will make by sharing expertise, treatment and care ideas simply cannot be measured. Coffee Regional Medical Center is honored to be part of this unique opportunity.”
Finally, behavioral and mental health support continues to be identified as an urgent need across the country, with a specific need to create access points for rural providers and schools to connect to mental health professionals. The School of Medicine and Children’s will work with schools, pediatricians and hospitals to develop a comprehensive approach to pediatric mental health. This project will begin in conjunction with Washington County and Jefferson County schools.
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