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Northeast Georgia Health System expanding with graduate medical education, Lumpkin campus and Habersham partnership
Toni Musta, simulation technologist for Graduate Medical Education at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville, demonstrates a procedure on a patient simulator on Friday, March 8, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

The Northeast Georgia Health System is expanding into Lumpkin County with a new hospital and forging a partnership with Habersham Medical Center. Expansions are also planned in Gainesville, with the first residents of a new graduate medical education program arriving in July. 

Graduate medical education
A SimMan, an advanced patient simulator, lays on a bed in one of the teaching spaces for Graduate Medical Education at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville on Friday, March 8, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

In July, 26 residents will arrive in Gainesville for the first year of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s graduate education program, which the Northeast Georgia Health System hopes will relieve a physician shortage in the region.

The first group of residents will be specializing in either internal medicine or general surgery. Then, in July 2020, the program will welcome its first class of 12 family medicine residents.

NGHS hopes training the next generation of physicians will encourage more doctors to stay in Northeast Georgia. About 75 percent of physicians end up practicing within 50 miles of their residency location, according to Dr. John Delzell, vice president of graduate medical education for NGHS and the designated institutional official for the GME program.

“Georgia is an exporter of physicians. We train less physicians than we have retiring and moving to other places, so the physician population is growing slower than the general population of Georgia,” Delzell said. “That was a big driver of the system’s interest in it, because we know that 20 years from now, our whole service area would have a major problem in finding physicians to meet the patients’ needs.”

Medical school graduates and soon-to-be-graduates learned they would be completing their three-year residencies at NGMC on March 15, the national “match day.”

The match process pairs residents and programs that have ranked each other highly, said Donna Brown, director of GME.

“We create a rank list of our top choices from those people who interviewed with us who we’re interested in hiring. Then in turn, the resident or the applicant will create a rank list as well of all the places that they’ve interviewed and their top choices,” Brown said. “That is put into a big system and a match is created based on that information. ... The medical student has to rank us on their list, and we have to rank them on our list in order for that person to land here.”

In the fall, 208 people came to Gainesville to interview for an internal medicine residency, and 99 people interviewed for the surgery residency program. Those people were selected from 2,800 applications for internal medicine and 1,000 surgery applications.

The GME program will be growing every year and is expected to level off at the maximum of about 200 residents in about 2025, Delzell said.

Several spaces at NGMC Gainesville have been renovated to accommodate the program, Brown said. Several classrooms have been built, and the largest one can accommodate 90 people, she said. 

Residents will also be able to go to on-site call rooms if they are on-call overnight or need a place to rest before driving home. A simulation lab will also be used for training the residents.

About 50 faculty members, who are local physicians, will be working with the residents as teachers and mentors. Residents will do rotations at NGMC Braselton and community clinics. 

Medical Park 2
NGHS 2.jpg
Heavy equipment levels the land along Jesse Jewell Parkway Thursday, March 7, 2019, as construction begins on the North Georgia Health System's new Medical Park 2 building. When completed the building will have a family medicine practice where residents in NGMC's graduate medical education program will work, along with other physician's offices. - photo by Scott Rogers

To create more space for the GME program, NGHS is building a Medical Park 2 facility near the existing Medical Park 1 building on Jesse Jewell Parkway.

The building will house a 25,000-square-foot family medicine practice where residents will work with physicians to care for everyone from babies to seniors, said Dr. Monica Newton, the program director for the GME family medicine program and the chair of primary and urgent care for Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.

The practice will see about 45,000 patients a year, she said.

Family medicine residents will also go to community clinics, free clinics, local health departments and more rural communities including Hiawassee to get experience working with different populations, Newton said.

“It’s not just focused on the patients you see, that come to the door of your practice, but thinking about those you’re not seeing and how to impact those,” she said.

Newton said she hopes residents can learn about continuity by working with many of the same patients over their three-year residency.

Medical Park 2 will be finished in May or June 2020, in time for family medicine residents to start that July, said Daniel Tuffy, president of Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.

Tuffy said the building will also have other physicians’ offices, as the health system is already short on space to offer doctors for their practices.

“We are running out of space as is. ... This is a net new building with the primary function of supporting our residency program,” Tuffy said.

When the building is fully functional three or four years after opening, Tuffy said it is expected to see about 400 patients a day.

The building will be about 70,000 square feet, compared to Medical Park 1, which is 88,000 square feet, according to Rudy Lonergan, director of facilities development for NGHS. 

Other NGHS expansions

Plans for Northeast Georgia Medical Center Lumpkin were announced in February. NGHS will open an emergency department at the former Chestatee Regional Hospital site in July and will later open a new hospital in Lumpkin, tentatively in 2022.

Chestatee Regional closed in July 2018. The temporary hospital at that site will have an emergency room, inpatient beds and imaging services. 

NGHS already owns a 57-acre property off of Ga. 400 near the intersection with Ga. 60 in Dahlonega that will be built into the permanent NGMC Lumpkin.

NGHS is leasing the Chestatee Regional property from the University System Georgia Board of Regents. The University of North Georgia hopes to relocate some of its health sciences programs to the building once it is vacated.

Also, later in February, the health system announced a partnership between NGMC Gainesville and Habersham Medical Center, a 53-bed hospital in Demorest. Starting July 1, physicians that serve NGMC Gainesville will extend their coverage to Habersham.

A partnership between the two hospitals had been in discussion for several years. 

Veran Lung Navigation

The health system has also acquired two Veran Lung Systems, one in Gainesville and one in Braselton, which can help detect lung cancer.

Dr. Kimtuyen Nguyen, a physician with Pulmonary and Sleep Specialists of Northeast Georgia, performed the Braselton hospital’s first navigational bronchoscopy in November.

Nguyen said the navigation system allows physicians to diagnose and stage lung cancer at the same time.

Previously, biopsies of tissue had to be obtained by going through the chest wall. The new technology is less invasive and uses a scope put in through the mouth that goes down through the lungs, allowing access to the tissue without having to go through the chest wall.

“I’m really excited about it, and I’m also excited for the surgeons to be able to localize the nodule and make their surgery more precise,” Nguyen said.

The system allows for biopsies on tissue that may not have been reachable before, making early diagnosis easier.

“If lung cancer is diagnosed at stage 3 or stage 4, the five-year survival rate is 15 percent. With early detection, there is 80 percent survival at 10 years,” Jayme Carrico, executive director of oncology services for NGHS, said.