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Medical College of Georgia pushes free tuition if you practice in rural area

Medical College of Georgia wants a program that would help pay tuition for doctors who serve in rural areas, where there's a need for more physicians, the Augusta Chronicle reported. Under the proposal, the Augusta institution also would expand by 50 students and shorten its medical school to three years.

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The initiative is "the biggest thing we've done since 1828," MCG dean David Hess said. That's the year the school was founded.

Hess and Augusta University president Brooks Keel have approached state leaders about the plan. They've also pitched the idea of the state paying tuition for students who agree to spend at least six years in underserved areas of the state, the Augusta newspaper reported.

A physician shortage is driving the proposal to add an additional 50 students, Hess said. The state ranks near the bottom in physicians per capita. Most of the areas that are considered underserved are outside metro Atlanta.

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"So we said if we're going to do this, why don't we do something novel and innovative?" Hess said. "If we're going to increase by 50, let's reduce the medical school (debt) because the other thing we have been working on is our student debt."

The change from four years to three means one less year of medical school tuition, he said.

The idea has taken hold in other parts of the country.

New York University's School of Medicine began a three-year program in 2013. That institution and seven others with accelerated three-year programs formed the Consortium of Accelerated Medical Pathway Programs in 2015. The group now includes a dozen U.S. medical schools, including Mercer University's School of Medicine in Georgia.

"I think many schools are undertaking serious, interesting curricular innovation approaches and, with that, being open to the possibility of a three-year program as one of the multiple innovations that different schools are trying," said Alison J. Whelan, chief medical education officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

An accelerated program in Augusta could take advantage of the 500 to 600 new residency positions recently created and funded by the state that are scattered throughout Georgia. Many of them are associated with Medical College of Georgia and its regional affiliates such as Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, Hess said.

"We want to have an opportunity for students to go to medical school for free so when they graduate they don't have any debt at all if they will go practice in rural Georgia for six years," Keel said.

Supporters hope the proposal could pass this legislative session or the following year, Keel said.

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