“PCOM is the starting point; it represents uncharted territory. Because PCOM is here in our community, we are already seeing interest from companies that need employees with science-based degrees.” –Barbara Grogan
If you want to change the future, the time to start is now. While the declining accessibility to healthcare professionals has been a topic of conversation in rural communities for years, leaders in South Georgia moved from talking to action.
In 2016, representatives from Colquitt Regional Medical Center (CRMC), the South Georgia Medical Education and Research Consortium, and the Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority, along with multiple local visionaries, approached leadership from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) about the feasibility of establishing an additional location in South Georgia.
“We had established a beneficial relationship with regional healthcare providers many years ago through a rural rotation footprint for our third and fourth year DO students,” says Joanne Jones, campus officer for PCOM South Georgia. “Then, graduates from our Suwanee, Georgia, campus who were from the South Georgia region wanted to complete their residency training in hospitals closer to home.”
The residency training became a reality when CRMC joined with the consortium (a partnership of five independent healthcare systems) and opened a family medicine residency program in Moultrie. The establishment of this first residency program opened the door even further for discussions to continue about placing a medical college in the South Georgia region.
In 2017, PCOM received approval from the American Osteopathic Association to establish an additional location in Colquitt County.
On a 31-acre site, the PCOM South Georgia campus includes a 75,000-square-foot facility that was completed in August 2019, just in time to welcome the first class of 59 doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) students.
With more than 700 in attendance at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Gov. Brian Kemp applauded the efforts of local and state leaders in bringing the first four-year medical school to the region.
Speaking from “the region that literally feeds, clothes and provides not only our state but our nation and the rest of the world,” says Kemp. “I’m proud to say that the state saw how training world-class doctors in Moultrie could be a real game-changer for our region, and we have supported this effort. But it was you all that got the ball started, and we’re honored to be a part of it.”
The Next Generation
With a competitive admissions process, more than 3,000 students were vying for the 59 slots available at PCOM South Georgia. The first class represents a diverse group with an average age of 25 made up of approximately half women and half men, with the majority from Georgia and Florida.
“This is our target number, it is smaller than most medical schools, but it allows us to have reasonable growth,” says Jones. “We know this number will also give our students a good rotation schedule.”
For Aliza Perez, being selected was both an honor and a whirlwind experience.
After graduating in 2017 from Boston College with a degree in biology, Perez returned home to Florida to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test and apply to osteopathic medical schools, including PCOM.
“While I was working, I received a call at 10 a.m. that I’ve been waiting on for months,” says Perez, explaining that she was on PCOM’s waitlist for admissions. “I screamed with excitement all over the hospital and told all my colleagues I was going to medical school.”
After immediately resigning from her job at the University of Miami Hospital, where she worked alongside a physician as a scribe, Perez knew her life was about to change dramatically.
“I had been accepted to PCOM [South Georgia] during the first day of orientation,” she says. “I had to figure out a way to get from Miami, Florida to Moultrie, Georgia by the following day at 8 a.m.”
Within a few hours, Perez had packed her belongings, said goodbye to family and friends, and started the seven-hour drive to Moultrie.
“I was moving my entire life to a totally different state in a matter of hours,” says Perez. “Once in the car, having time to reflect, I was filled with such joy and adrenaline, then reality kicked in. I was moving to a new city where I knew no one, had no place to live, and only three duffle bags with a few of my belongings.”
After living in a local hotel for a few days, Perez was able to get an apartment with a PCOM classmate.
“With the help of the hotel staff, I found a store to buy a bed to sleep in and a desk to study,” she says. “I loaded the furniture into my truck, and when I got to the apartment, the maintenance staff helped me unload the furniture up to my apartment.”
After completing her first semester, Perez says she is adjusting to the fast-paced life of medical school and her new home in Moultrie.
“The community continues to welcome me and the rest of the PCOM students,” she says. “In fact, many members of the community have asked me what they can do to facilitate our studies and success in Moultrie. Thus far, I have nothing but positive things to say about Moultrie and look forward to my next three and a half years here.”
Growth Has No Boundaries
Community leaders want PCOM students, like Perez, to become acclimated with South Georgia and choose to make this their permanent home.
With South Georgia’s critical need for physicians and healthcare professionals, studies have shown that physicians educated and trained in a region are more likely to remain in the area to practice medicine.
“We don’t want to be a revolving door,” says Barbara Grogan, president of Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority. “When the students come here, take classes and hopefully do their residency in the region, we want them to choose to stay here and work because they have become familiar with our region.”
An ambitious goal, Grogan knows that Colquitt County, and other South Georgia communities, will have to join forces to create the types of jobs that will keep PCOM graduates in the area.
“PCOM is the starting point; it represents uncharted territory,” says Grogan. “Because PCOM is here in our community, we are already seeing interest from companies that need employees with science-based degrees.”
With hundreds of professional options, not all medical graduates choose the traditional career path as a physician. “Most people think medical and pharmaceutical jobs, but there are a lot more options—just think about companies that need researchers to work in labs, or have knowledge and experience in medical research sciences.”
Having a tremendous capacity to grow, Grogan says PCOM South Georgia brings an immeasurable ability to increase the region’s workforce.
“Not only is there availability for PCOM to expand but as a community, we have opportunities that we didn’t have before,” she says. “This is a unique industry project, and it’s not just one big business that creates a lot of jobs, it has far-reaching potential to recruit other science-based industries to our region.”