The health care industry is the leading employer in Hall County, with the Northeast Georgia Medical Center alone employing 7,900 workers in 2017.
From nurses to physicians’ assistants to physical therapists, health care is among the fastest growing workforce sectors in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
All this means health care education must keep up with industry demand for highly trained, skilled workers.
That’s why NGMC has renovated a wing at its Gainesville campus for a brand-new, state-of-the-art residency program for medical school graduates.
The classrooms and labs are built, the administrative offices have been moved into and the on-call bunks are all made up. The only thing missing is the students – and they’ll be on site by 2019.
“We’re looking to make it something special and unique throughout the state,” Carol Burrell, president and CEO of the Northeast Georgia Health System, said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in December.
Hospital officials expect upward of 170 residents across six different specialties to enroll by 2024, making it one of the largest programs in the state.
Medical students will be able to apply for the program at NGMC in one of six medical specialties: internal medicine, family medicine, general surgery, OB/GYN, psychiatry and emergency medicine.
Hospital officials said they have received about $6 million from the state to help offset a $9 million up-front investment in program facilities, leadership, faculty and other resources.
Once operational, the program will be subsidized by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government estimates that the hospital’s program would provide economic growth to Hall County to the tune of $66 million from 2019 to 2023, with an additional $18 million in local economic impact each year thereafter.
The program is estimated to generate more than 90 jobs in 2019, growing to up to 300 by 2023.
Gov. Nathan Deal has set a goal of adding 400 graduate residency positions in hospitals across the state over the next several years to meet demand for health care services.
Graduate residency programs prepare young doctors with hands-on training, but without enough space available, many are leaving the state.
Deal said between 20 to 25 percent of these graduate residents will never return to Georgia, a costly proposition.
The Gainesville program could help recruit and retain homegrown talent, fill shortages and improve overall quality of care and patient outcomes, hospital officials said.
It will also help support health care in the wider community.
For example, the Good News Clinics in Gainesville, which provides free general health and specialized care for qualifying low-income patients, is working to provide opportunities for graduate residents to gain experience, according to Executive Director Allison Borchert.
Meanwhile, health care education at local public schools and universities is also critical.
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield has said it is increasingly challenging to hire and retain health sciences teachers as the public school district tries to compete with the private sector.
Improving salaries and benefits for these specialized teachers is a priority but could take time to implement.
At the University of North Georgia, the department of health, physical education and recreation was renamed the department of kinesiology this past summer to reflect a “more streamlined approach to the degree programs offered within the department.”
The department, which is within UNG’s College of Education, also offers associate and master’s degrees, as well as a post-baccalaureate certificate program. And in January, UNG approved the founding of the Center for Healthy Aging to be established on its Gainesville campus.
“The mission of the UNG Center for Healthy Aging is to provide a community-based organization that will provide quality education and services to older adults in the north Georgia region,” according to a press release. “The center will foster the development of UNG students and faculty by encouraging scholarly inquiry and service through mentorship and partnership with aging adults in the north Georgia community.”
For Brenau University, it became apparent many years ago that health education would lead the school in its long-term growth, President Ed Schrader said.
University officials wanted to take advantage of the growing health care industry as the Northeast Georgia Health System and The Longstreet Clinic expanded operations and demand for local talent rose.
In addition, the county and region became more and more attractive to retirees, as well as young families, who require certain health care services.
“We’ve been very opportunistic in our expansion of the health sciences,” Schrader said. “For a school like Brenau, growth means two things: enrollment and financial stability.”
That’s particularly true because Brenau is a private school with a relatively small endowment of $50 million.
A dozen years ago, the university had a nursing school, a fledgling occupational therapy program and small clinical psychology program, Schrader said.
Schrader said to carry out the school’s mission, Brenau needed to attract students, grow programs in specialized areas and ensure students had career success after graduation.
Changes to Medicare and insurance in 2005 allowed the occupational therapy program to expand and become “recognized as a serious health care treatment option,” Schrader said.
Annual graduates have since spiked to nearly 150 from just 20 to 30.
Brenau now has a doctorate-level nurse practitioner program, has increased faculty size and student enrollment, and this year will graduate its first class of physical therapy students.
Significant upfront investments, to the tune of millions of dollars, have been required to take a “leap of faith” to get such programs nationally accredited, Schrader said.
And now, Brenau is looking to get accredited for an independent physicians’ assistant undergraduate program that requires a year of specialty training after graduation that would be operated in collaboration with the health system.