School of Medicine announces community partners in rural pediatric health care initiative

4621
dr. jean sumner speaks into a podium in front of a backdrop with the mercer school of medicine, georgia rural health innovation center and children's healthcare of atlanta logos
Mercer School of Medicine Dean Dr. Jean Sumner speaks at a Feb. 23 news conference in the University Center about a new initiative with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta to improve pediatric health care in rural Georgia. Photo by Christopher Ian Smith

MACON – A major initiative launched by Mercer University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to improve pediatric health care in rural Georgia will initially involve hospitals, pediatricians and school systems representing 11 rural Georgia counties. School of Medicine and Children’s leadership announced the community partners during a Feb. 23 news conference in Heritage Hall of the University Center on Mercer’s Macon campus. Gov. Brian Kemp previously announced the affiliation between the School of Medicine and Children’s on Feb. 22 at the Georgia State Capitol. 

The affiliation between the School of Medicine and Children’s will be funded by a dedicated and long-term sustainable fund of $200 million that the Children’s Board of Trustees allocated in 2022. 

“I believe this is a transformational opportunity for the state of Georgia and rural children,” School of Medicine Dean Dr. Jean R. Sumner said. “It also aligns perfectly with MUSM’s mission to meet the primary care and health needs of rural medically underserved areas of Georgia, to which we are committed. 

“We could not be more honored and grateful to work with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to bring support and opportunity for care to the children of Georgia’s rural counties. Children’s is a critically important, pediatric health care system that is a treasure. The goal of this initiative is to improve access to pediatric medical care close to home and ultimately to help improve the lives of Georgia’s rural kids.”

dr jean sumner stands to the left or president william d. underwood, who is speaking into a microphone at a podium
Mercer President William D. Underwood introduces School of Medicine Dean Dr. Jean Sumner at a news conference Feb. 23 in the University Center. Photo by Christopher Ian Smith

One of the top priorities that Mercer has already identified is an urgent need for more pediatricians throughout Georgia. To help increase access to pediatricians in rural counties, Children’s is funding 10 full-tuition scholarships in 2023 through a program at the School of Medicine for medical students specializing in pediatrics who commit to serving in rural Georgia for at least four years after residency.  

“We are thrilled to be working with Mercer University School of Medicine. They are a trusted partner in our rural communities and well-suited to guide us in addressing the needs of Georgia’s children. We are confident that together we can make an impact for kids and families across Georgia,” said Donna Hyland, CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Donna hyland speaks into a microphone in front of a podium
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta CEO Donna Hyland speaks at a news conference Feb. 23 in the University Center. Photo by Christopher Ian Smith

In addition, the affiliation will allow the School of Medicine to leverage its demonstrated understanding of the health care needs of rural communities to conduct and evaluate the pilot programs. Children’s will provide the specialized pediatric clinical knowledge needed to launch and sustain those programs, which aim to provide support for rural hospitals, rural pediatricians, and pediatric behavioral and mental health. 

“As a pediatrician practicing in a rural area, I am thrilled about the collaboration between Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Mercer School of Medicine,” said Dr. Jennifer Tarbutton, chair of the School of Medicine’s Board of Governors. “Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is recognized as a premier provider of pediatric care in the nation, and as a graduate of their pediatric residency program, I know firsthand how valuable the education from this program is. This collaboration and Mercer’s planned pilots are the first step to creating access to educational opportunities and top-quality specialists for pediatricians in rural Georgia. 

“I am also a proud graduate of the School of Medicine and also know firsthand how committed Mercer is to educate physicians who work in rural areas to provide high quality medical care to all ages. In addition, Mercer continues to work in areas of research to understand the disparities in health and to find the best solutions to correct these differences. The state of Georgia is fortunate to have both Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Mercer School of Medicine working together to strengthen pediatric care across our state.”

dr jennifer tarbutton speaks into a microphone while standing behind a podium
Dr. Jennifer Tarbutton, a Sandersville pediatrician, speaks at a news conference Feb. 23 in the University Center. Photo by Christopher Ian Smith

Rural hospitals currently face a challenge in their ability to treat and keep pediatric patients in their communities. To better prepare rural hospitals to respond to pediatric patients in the emergency departments, the new initiative will assist rural hospitals with meeting a set of criteria to be considered “Kid Ready.” This project involves eight rural hospitals: 

  • Clinch Memorial Hospital, Clinch County 
  • Coffee Regional Medical Center, Coffee County 
  • Crisp Regional Hospital, Crisp County 
  • Dodge County Hospital, Dodge County
  • Mountain Lakes Medical Center, Rabun County 
  • Taylor Regional Hospital, Pulaski County 
  • Upson Regional Medical Center, Upson County 
  • Washington County Regional Medical Center, Washington County 

In addition, rural pediatricians are often isolated with little access to subspecialty support, after-hours support, and regular clinical updates. The initiative will provide physician-to-physician support and offer provider training. In addition, the School of Medicine will conduct a needs assessment to determine core training needs. This project involves five rural pediatricians: 

  • Dr. Grace Davis, Worth County 
  • Dr. Leah Helton, Laurens County 
  • Dr. Brittany Lord, Dodge County
  • Dr. Jennifer Stroud, Coffee County 
  • Dr. Jennifer Tarbutton, Washington County 

Finally, behavioral and mental health support continues to be identified as an urgent need across the country, with a specific need to create access points for rural providers and schools to connect to mental health professionals. The School of Medicine and Children’s will work with schools, pediatricians and hospitals to develop a comprehensive approach to pediatric mental health. This project will begin in conjunction with Washington County and Jefferson County schools.

A group of medical school students wearing white coats gather together
Mercer School of Medicine students watch a news conference Feb. 23 in the University Center. Photo by Christopher Ian Smith

About Mercer University School of Medicine (Macon, Savannah and Columbus)  

Mercer University’s School of Medicine was established in 1982 to educate physicians and health professionals to meet the primary care and health care needs of rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia. Today, more than 60 percent of graduates currently practice in the state of Georgia, and of those, more than 80 percent are practicing in rural or medically underserved areas of Georgia. Mercer medical students benefit from a problem-based medical education program that provides early patient care experiences. Such an academic environment fosters the early development of clinical problem-solving and instills in each student an awareness of the place of the basic medical sciences in medical practice. The School opened additional four-year M.D. campuses in Savannah in 2008 and in Columbus in 2021. Following their second year, students participate in core clinical clerkships at the School’s primary teaching hospitals: Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center and Piedmont Macon Medical Center in Macon; Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah; and Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and St. Francis-Emory Healthcare in Columbus. The School also offers master’s degrees in preclinical sciences and biomedical sciences and a Ph.D. in rural health sciences in Macon and a master’s degree in family therapy in Macon and Atlanta.  

About Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta  

As the only freestanding pediatric healthcare system in Georgia, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is the trusted leader in caring for kids. The not-for-profit organization’s mission is to make kids better today and healthier tomorrow through more than 60 pediatric specialties and programs, top healthcare professionals, and leading research and technology. Children’s is one of the largest pediatric clinical care providers in the country, managing more than one million patient visits annually at three hospitals, Marcus Autism Center, the Center for Advanced Pediatrics, urgent care centers and neighborhood locations. Consistently ranked among the top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has impacted the lives of kids in Georgia, across the United States and around the world for more than 100 years thanks to generous support from the community. In 2021, Children’s served 23,000 individual children from rural counties totaling 65,000 patient visits. Patients from rural counties sought care for emergencies, surgeries, cardiology, neurology, orthopedics, hematology/oncology, transplant and a variety of other treatments.