Let’s be both realistic and optimistic as we take a rational look at the social, educational and economic opportunities in Northeast Georgia.
Everyone knows the economy is dismal. If you specifically consider Georgia’s economic predicament, you can get an aching feeling in the pit of your stomach. So let’s get the bad news out of the way first:
Georgia‘s unemployment rate is at a 16-year high with about 350,000 newly unemployed. That does not count thousands of folks who lost jobs earlier in the year. They have been relegated to the rolls of the long-term unemployed.
Georgia’s work force is 35th in the nation when it comes to overall education. What does that mean? It hits you in the face that we have lost a large number of low-skill jobs. Those jobs can be filled by any unskilled laborer in the world. Those jobs are not likely to come back to Georgia.
We have to face reality. In the future we cannot compete, and do not want to compete, with third-world countries that pay their workers a weekly wage that equals the hourly wage of one of Georgia’s laborers. We absolutely must educate and prepare a work force for high-skilled jobs, and that takes time.
The drought has reduced revenue related to recreational use of Lake Lanier and further slowed an already slow housing market. Surely this will improve, but these areas of the economy are historically fraught with "boom or bust" volatility.
Northeast Georgia’s poultry industry is under tremendous pressure with increasing costs of fuel, feed, utilities, insurance and tight credit. A looming problem is the offshore production of low-cost poultry products from countries that give their producers unfair advantages by allowing dramatically lower wages, child labor, no benefits (no health insurance, retirement, etc.) and lower environmental standards. I am confident that we have the best minds and technologies in the poultry industry working on these issues, but their jobs only get harder day by day.
How can Northeast Georgia take a long-term view in addressing these basic economic realities and still look optimistically toward a future that raises the quality of life for all residents? I am weary of greed, quick fixes and rescue plans. It is time to make commitments that are founded on good economic sense that also have the potential for long and productive contributions.
The good news is that higher education in general and medical education specifically should be appreciated not only for their intellectual, social and artistic benefits but also for their contribution to the economy and commerce. And the better news is that this region has an opportunity to invest financially and emotionally in a powerful, long-range economic engine.
Brenau University completed, with the cooperation and of the Northeast Georgia Health System, a feasibility study by the "dean" of medical school deans, Dr. Emery Wilson. Dr. Wilson headed the University Of Kentucky School Of Medicine during a significant phase of its growth and development. He is now a consultant to some of the top "names" in the medical education community.
The study concluded that there is overwhelming need for physicians in the United States, especially in Georgia. The study further concluded that Brenau has the academic and professional foundation to support a new medical school.
Brenau already has a "school" of health sciences with undergraduate and graduate programs in occupational therapy, nursing and family nurse practitioners, physicians assistants program and clinical psychology. Soon, Brenau will begin offering a doctorate for family nurse practitioners and a research program for master’s degrees in biotechnology.
If every existing medical school in Georgia increased enrollments by 25 percent and we started five new medical schools, we still could not meet the need for physicians in our state. Georgia is ranked about 42nd in the U.S. in the number of physicians per capita. The "physician gap" will only worsen because we have one of the top 10 fastest-growing populations in the United States.
Nationwide, there is little difference in the prognosis. The Association of American Medical Colleges just released its 2008 physician work force study that concludes that there could be a shortage of as many as 160,000 physicians by 2025 if we do not produce more and get more efficient use of those we have.
Remember that relatively small and generally unrecognized Mercer University partnered with its home county and the state of Georgia to begin a new medical school from scratch just 26 years ago. This endeavor dramatically accelerated Mercer’s ascent to national recognition and regional prominence in higher education.
The establishment of the Mercer medical school also brought millions of dollars of new revenue to Macon and its surrounding counties. Now Mercer has launched an initiative for a satellite medical school in Savannah, which will be a boon to that community as well.
It is documented that the smallest medical school in the United States brings about $100 million in economic benefit to its hometown and county per year. Added to that increase in highly skilled employment is the related tax revenue, which is used to enhance the overall quality of life for every citizen in the local community.
Of course, another benefit is that if we educate physicians in Northeast Georgia, we will have a significant number of those new doctors deciding to stay here with all of the accompanying benefits.
Hall County and Gainesville can swim against the negative tide of the economy by establishing an environment supportive of the great aspiration of medical education. Adding to our work force the highly skilled technicians, professors, doctors and support industries that accompany a medical school can only increase the quality of life and help replace lost jobs and contracting markets in other commercial sectors.
I ask you to explore the possible. Brenau University can host a medical school, and we can start it for a fraction of what it would take for a new state school to be created. I cannot think of a better investment for Gainesville and Hall County.
Ed Schrader, PhD, is president of Brenau University in Gainesville.