January 13, 2023

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Proposed new partnership with Wellstar Health System

Happy new year. As we all hoped, I do think it’s going to be a banner year for the Medical College of Georgia, one of the most important in our nearly 200-year history. A year that, with the great support of so many, particularly our Board of Regents, Governor Kemp and our Georgia Legislature and the university’s leadership, could enable MCG to move to the next level and to realize even more success in enabling a healthier Georgia today and tomorrow. As I hope you all know by now, the week after Christmas our AU Health System and the Georgia-based not-for-profit Wellstar Health System announced signing a letter of intent that would have Wellstar managing our Health System. Additionally, it would enable an academic affiliation between Wellstar and MCG that, with the approval of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, would establish a regional campus in the Atlanta area, a move that will enable us to have medical students living and learning all over Georgia. Let me note that we have had medical students doing rotations since 2015 at Wellstar Kennestone in Marietta, the largest of the nine hospitals Wellstar operates in our state. But Wellstar has a tremendous footprint in Georgia with two hospitals in Marietta as well as facilities in Austell, Douglasville, Roswell, Hiram, Griffin, Jackson and LaGrange. Their coverage area, in combination with our existing academic and health care coverage areas, provides an almost perfect complementary fit that would enable us to serve our state even better both clinically and academically. As USG Chancellor Sonny Perdue said: “AUHS, Augusta University and the Wellstar Health System have a shared mission to solve Georgia’s health care challenges. By joining forces and working together, we can leverage Wellstar’s clinical platform and leading-edge systems to support patients while providing more opportunities for students to learn, train and care for residents in local communities across Georgia.” Please let me thank Chancellor Perdue for his insight and leadership on this critical mission for our Health System and medical school.  

Plans include major improvements to existing health care facilities and an MCG campus in Atlanta

Academic medical centers are defined as a medical school and its health system.  MCG and the AU Health System comprise Georgia’s only public academic medical center, a privilege that I believe would be significantly strengthened by this planned partnership. While many important details are still being worked out, the partnership should enable significant improvements to our existing health care facilities and enable the much-anticipated growth in Columbia County with a hospital there. Perhaps just as importantly, this is an opportunity for like-minded individuals who care about Georgia’s health to take more concrete steps to address real issues like rural health. I have gotten to know many members of the leadership team of Wellstar in recent years and I see a kinship in our commitment to patients, to employees and to Georgia. MCG was founded nearly 200 years ago by a handful of physicians who knew our community needed more physicians and would not take “no” for an answer. While we have not always been perfect in our important pursuits, I believe MCG and you, our faculty, staff, students, residents and fellows, who are MCG have been steadfast in striving for excellence with humility. I have seen that likeminded spirit at Wellstar, in people like CEO Candace Saunders and in EVP Dr. Hank Capps and in their extremely knowledgeable Board of Trustees.

Proposed partners are likeminded in their approach to health care and to Georgia

As we begin to open our doors a little wider to hopefully finalize the many details that still need work, our other MCG leaders are seeing it too. Dr. Capps visited this week with our MCG leadership team, comprised of department chairs and center and institute directors, and they are getting the same vibes. Anesthesiology Chair Steffen Meiler said Dr. Capps’ message “was nothing short of inspirational and projected excitement, opportunity and innovation.” Said Otolaryngology Chair Stil Kountakis: “I was happy to hear that Wellstar provides support and opportunities for professional development and there is a great mentorship structure within their system. I was amazed to learn that Wellstar leadership and teams worked so well together that they were able to implement a major electronic health record system in their clinical areas faultlessly and expediently. More importantly, Wellstar ranks very high in physician, employee and patient satisfaction, meaning that Wellstar fosters a culture of effective problem solving and compassionate health care delivery.” Chair of Orthopaedic Surgery Monte Hunter remarked that he too found the meeting “very positive and inspiring,” and that he came away “enthusiastic and energized.” He liked Dr. Capps’ candor in categorizing the company he chose to work for as “scrappy but kind,” (sound familiar), and in emphasizing Wellstar’s commitment to the patients they treat and to the people who treat them. Please note that the extensive Wellstar Health System already serves one out of every six Georgians and provides nearly $1 billion annually in uncompensated care to our citizens. They also already have a wide range of residency programs in primary care. Also, please know that our first contingent of 17 students who will be able to do all their required clinical rotations at Wellstar Kennestone started just last week. Great stuff. The brand-new third years include Tarab Ajjan, Ji Young Baik, Destine Ede, Joseph Fahey, Satya Jella, Joyce Kim, Tyra Kimbler, Grace Koh, Eunji Lee, Tiffanie Leeman, James Mansfield, Simon Miller, Alexa Rakusin, Danae Rammos, Pareena Sharma, Jacob Tadros and Mario Espinosa Palacio. Check out their photo along with the esteemed Dr. Ned Pruitt, MCG neurologist who is also assistant dean for advanced foundations in medicine (‘advanced foundations’ means the clinical months). Please stay tuned the next few months as we continue to discuss the details of what a partnership with Wellstar would look like, and thank you all again for your patience, support and relentless hard work.

Emanuel Medical Center is a new partner for educating Peach State Scholars, and expanding telemedicine visits 

It’s quite a blessing that Georgia is so filled with dedicated people who want to make our state even better. It always makes me particularly happy and proud when that includes partnering with the Medical College of Georgia. Last week we solidified new friendships and partnerships in Emanuel County (Swainsboro is the county seat) and at Emanuel Medical Center. This beautiful, small community is our newest teaching site for Peach State Scholars, like Reggie Benson from Douglasville, Georgia, and Luis Rodriguez from Adel, who were there with us, MCG students who have committed to practicing primary care in underserved Georgia. The good people of Swainsboro also will be part of our expansion of telehealth offerings through the new Center for Telehealth. We talked recently about the new center, which is under the direction of more great partners, Dr. Matt Lyon, vice chair of academics and research in our Department of Emergency Medicine, and Lauren Hopkins, AVP for virtual care and community health at our Health System. Joining our fun visit was Rep. Butch Parrish, a native of Swainsboro and a graduate of Swainsboro High School and the University of Georgia, who this week became the nation’s college football national champions for the second year in a row! Rep. Parrish also is a great friend of MCG’s. He just started his 20th term in the Georgia House where he has distinguished himself as a leader, including serving as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health, and a visionary, including serving on the Economic Development and Tourism Committee and the House Rural Development Committee. Austin Stacy was with us from the office of U.S. Representative Rick Allen, whose years of leadership accomplishments include currently serving as the senior Republican on the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions as a member of the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. So was Emanuel County Commissioner and District 4 Chairman Jim Sherrod. Welcoming faces also included that of Internist Dr. Vijitha Prasad, who I have known for years and is a fellow longtime advocate of ensuring patients who have a stroke get the timely care they need no matter where they live. Dr. Prasad and I first met in 2001 and she was instrumental in bringing the REACH telestroke program to Emanuel County Hospital, the first hospital in Georgia to have it and one of the first rural telestroke hospitals in the world. Twin City Mayor Matt Donaldson joined us from his city, which is also in Emanuel County and is known for being ‘twice as nice.’ The remarkable Emanuel County Medical Center CEO Damien Scott shared his incredible insight about the “health care deserts” too many rural communities have become and how programs like telemedicine can help replenish those communities and residents. And how, like with everything in life that matters, relationships are as essential as the technology that connects two points. I have a special place in my heart for CEOs of small rural hospitals like Damien Scott. It was also good to see our friend Jennie Wren Denmark, who runs the East Georgia Federal Qualified Health Center and who is so supportive of MCG and to whom I owe a visit.

Dr. Thomas Gale retires after nearly half a century

The only bad thing about good relationships is when you have to say goodbye. It’s hard, still one of the best things about MCG is that often the farewell is a long time coming. Today we say goodbye to Dr. Thomas Gale, a PhD in anatomy who studied at the University of Vermont Medical School and Albany Medical College of Union University and did his postdoc fellowship at Dartmouth Medical School, now the Geisel School of Medicine. He was on the faculty at Dartmouth for a few years before coming to us in 1976 as an associate professor in our Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy. That department is home to one of the earliest and most impactful educational experiences for our medical students, where they learn the anatomy of the human body thanks to the incredible generosity of our body donors and the incredible skill of people like Dr. Gale. Department Chair Extraordinaire Sylvia Smith shares: “Anatomical dissection can be intimidating to students and Dr. Gale has a gift for helping students learn this complex subject matter. He has exemplary skills in the laboratory, he shares his knowledge willingly and with kindness. He is a very fine man and treasured colleague.” Dr. Gale was already here when Dr. Smith joined the faculty in 1991 and she remembers his kindness and helpfulness to her as well. In the nearly half century Dr. Gale has been with us, he has gracefully educated countless medical students as well as students in physical therapy and occupational therapy, and in the physician assistant, sonography and nursing anesthesia programs. He technically retired back in 2001, but like so many of you, he was soon back to what he loved, teaching medical gross anatomy to our students and to many others as well. He has been honored multiple times by our students for his excellence at his chosen profession. Please let me join them in thanking him for a critically important job, amazingly well done. Enjoy, Dr. Gale. But let us know if you change your mind again.

MCG graduate and Moultrie surgeon Dr. Howard L. Melton reappointed to American College of Surgeons Board of Governors

Finally today, a few years back after thinking about all the amazing MCG graduates who are out there (and here) making this world better, we came up with some posters highlighting a few of these individuals with the tagline: MCG is my medical school. Make it yours. You can see some of these in the Admissions Office if you want to take a look. Well here is yet another example of MCG graduates making an impact and more proof that does not mean you have to live in a city of millions to do it. Dr. Howard L. Melton, a native of Valdosta, is a 1987 MCG graduate, who completed his general surgery training at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis then went to Colquitt Regional to practice his chosen specialty in 1996. Moultrie is the county seat for the South Georgia county of Colquitt and there his leadership roles have included serving as chief of staff, chief of surgery and on the hospital’s board. He helped develop Sterling Center Bariatrics and is on the treatment team there. He has been vice president of the Georgia Society of the American College of Surgeons. Most recently he has been appointed to a second, three-year term as a governor-at-large for the Board of Governors of the American College of Surgeons, the representative body of the ACS. This board has an international membership of 278 members from all surgical specialties and societies. Not unlike telemedicine, these leaders help eliminate distance and improve communication between these diverse professionals and groups and help improve the care they provide across the world. Please join me in thanking Dr. Melton for his contributions to medicine.

My best to you always,

Dean Hess Signature

Dean, Medical College of Georgia

Upcoming Events

Jan 20 – MCG Faculty Senate Meeting, noon, Natalie and Lansing B. Lee Jr. Auditorium

Feb 17 – MCG State of the College Address, noon, Natalie and Lansing B. Lee Jr. Auditorium

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