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Brenau may drop big bucks on med school
Return worth investment; program could have $100 million impact on area
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GAINESVILLE — Brenau University might have to spend up to $35 million to start a medical school, but the economic impact to the Hall County area could be at least $100 million, a consultant studying the prospect of such an endeavor said Thursday night.

Medical schools have benefited Georgia to the tune of $10.1 billion, with amounts varying in communities that support such schools, said Dr. Emery A. Wilson, principal in the Lexington, Ky.-based DJW Associates.

He was addressing a group of mostly area doctors in a meeting at Brenau’s new nursing school on Chestnut Street. He plans to address the school’s Board of Trustees today.

Wilson, also dean emeritus of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, said that, with a medical school in place, Hall County’s health system would grow and the area could attract 400 to 500 students, new faculty members, visits by students’ families and others, and "more conventions."

He didn’t have a firm estimate on the dollar impact but said "it is going to be significant."

DJW could release a draft of its report by the end of December and a final version by early January, Wilson said.

Wilson gave several positives about whether a medical school would fit into the area.

First of all, there would be no shrinking customer base. Northeast Georgia has about 1.4 million people and is expected to grow 32 percent by 2015.

Also, while Georgia is the 10th most populous state in the nation, it is ranked 37th in the nation in number of doctors per 100,000 people.

Georgia has 202 per 100,000, compared the U.S. average of 268 per 100,000. The state has "a long way to go to catch up," Wilson said.

Northeast Georgia particularly has a need for obstetrician/gynecologists, pediatricians and primary care doctors.

Noting Brenau Women’s College, the traditional part of the more encompassing university, Wilson said the "health of women and children fits (Brenau’s) mission very well."

The consultant also praised the Northeast Georgia Health System as "a major asset to this area."

"I had no idea that was here," Wilson said, going on to say that the health system’s number of doctors, patient admissions and other factors makes it "comparable to, or better than, most academic hospitals."

Wilson said some concerns about a medical school would be whether it has support from area doctors and the health system. Brenau would rely on practicing doctors to help as part-time or volunteer faculty.

"You have to have clinical support from the area ... to make this successful," Wilson said.

Dr. Jeff Marshall, a Gainesville cardiologist, said he believes if the "community wants to do this, I don’t think it is something you do half-heartedly. ... It is a huge undertaking."

Dr. Ken Dixon, who has pushed for a possible medical school in the area as part of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2030, said he senses widespread support among doctors for the effort.

"We have got the building blocks in place to do something potentially transformational," said Dixon, a Gainesville surgeon. "... Education and medicine coming together is a good thing."

If DJW gives its endorsement for the project, Brenau would have to consider whether it fits with the school’s mission and figure out "how to pay for it," said David Morrison, Brenau spokesman.

The start-up cost of $20 million to $35 million would involve capital improvements, hiring administration and faculty and setting up support services for students, Wilson said.

Tuition and fees, plus grants and a "development campaign" could help raise needed revenue, he added.

"There are people who will give to the cause of a medical school that they would not give (otherwise)," Wilson said.

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