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Just What the Doctor Ordered

Georgia is the eighth most populous state but No. 40 for active physicians per capita. The new School of Medicine aims to address this disparity. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

The University of Georgia is establishing a new School of Medicine. It will transform the institution and the state.

Converging factors are putting a strain on Georgia’s health care system.

The state’s population is surging, and the medical workforce is struggling to keep up. With 11 million residents, Georgia is now the nation’s eighth most populous state. And yet the Peach State ranks No. 40 among U.S. states for the number of active patient care physicians per capita.

Those factors alone create longer wait times for appointments and less access to care, particularly in rural communities and other underserved areas.

Add to that, nearly one-third of the state’s physicians are nearing retirement, and one thing is clear: Georgia needs more doctors.

In January, Gov. Brian Kemp BSA ’87 addressed the looming crisis. He laid out a plan to invest $50 million in state funds to establish an independent medical school at the University of Georgia. Weeks later, the chancellor and the University System of Georgia Board of Regents backed the proposal, and in March, the Georgia General Assembly passed a budget to put the plan into action. UGA will match the state allocation with private funds to build a $100 million state-of-the-art medical school facility.

Building a Healthier Georgia

The establishment of the School of Medicine in Athens is a bold new chapter for the University of Georgia. It’s one that will take a considerable effort in planning, hiring, and investments to get through the rigorous accreditation process.

The university is primed for the challenge.

“The University of Georgia, as the flagship, land-grant institution in Georgia, is perfectly positioned to help address the medical doctor shortage in this state,” says President Jere W. Morehead JD ’80.

“Our goal is to produce the best practicing doctors out there in the 21st century,” says Dr. Shelley Nunn, founding dean of the UGA School of Medicine. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Since 2010, UGA has partnered with the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University to educate physicians in the Classic City. The Augusta University/University of Georgia Partnership has trained hundreds of doctors and elevated health programs in the region with a particular emphasis on underserved communities.

The facilities and relationships built through the partnership become part of the foundation for the independent medical school, which will be located on the Health Sciences Campus on Prince Avenue.

But the new medical school will also tap into some of the university’s other strengths. For example, UGA’s vast public service network, which reaches each of the state’s 159 counties, provides an opportunity to expand health care capacity in rural Georgia.

New Possibilities for Discovery

As the School of Medicine prepares to address the immediate challenge of doctor shortages, opportunities to discover new medical treatments will also arise.

In the past decade, UGA’s research enterprise has grown by 63%, reaching $570.9 million in research expenditures in FY2023. That growth signals UGA’s increasing impact on scientific discovery. In that time, funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has increased by 76%, thanks to multidisciplinary biomedical research programs like the Regenerative Bioscience Center (see page 24). In fact, UGA is the largest recipient of NIH funding among public universities without a medical school.

That research growth is poised to accelerate when the School of Medicine comes online, attracting new scientists to join UGA’s existing research programs and create new ones. The future medical school will almost certainly secure more federal funding for the university and, ultimately, life-saving advances in medicine.

What Comes Next

Shortly after the School of Medicine was officially established, UGA named Dr. Shelley Nuss the founding dean of the program. Nuss has served as the AU/UGA Medical Partnership’s campus dean since 2016. Before that, Nuss was a program director for West Virginia University’s medical program and a vice president for West Virginia University Hospital.

As a physician, Nuss specializes in internal medicine and psychiatry. Peers in her field have recognized her for her contributions to medicine and medical education.

Now, Nuss’ mission is to spearhead the work to bring the medical school to life, including preparing the program for accreditation and further developing the Health Sciences Campus. The university broke ground in April on a new medical education and research facility. When complete, the new building will provide the capacity to double the 60 students per class currently trained through the Medical Partnership.

Nuss’ experience working with the state’s first public medical school and her familiarity with UGA will be an asset.

“What’s so amazing about this is that we can put our own stamp on this. We can create a curriculum and a faculty and staff that is just outstanding,” Nuss says. “Our goal is to produce the best practicing doctors out there in the 21st century.”

UGA officials and state dignitaries mark the groundbreaking of the new medical education and research building for the School of Medicine on the Health Sciences Campus in Athens. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)