The Apprenticeship

Life-long Medical Partners Teach Med Students for First Time

For more than 30 years, Dr. McCord Smith and Dr. Van Morris have been practicing neurology side-by-side. Now, they also teach students from the Georgia Health Science University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership.

Since 1978, Smith and Morris have treated patients in their private practice and at St. Mary’s Hospital. In 2009, they closed their office and shifted their focus to inpatients at St. Mary’s.

So far, Smith and Morris have mentored only a handful of third-year students.

“The students have a younger point of view,” Smith said. “It reminds me of doing it when I was an intern and a resident.”

After graduating from Emory School of Medicine, Smith was selected for the neurology program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. Morris, another Georgia native, arrived at the same time and the two became friends.

The UNC residency program was well-established and the two we slotted into a hierarchy with med students on the bottom levels, interns and residents on the next steps and attending physicians at the top.

The St. Mary’s program is different. “We don’t have residents or interns, so there’s a lot more face-to-face time for the attending physician and the student,” Morris said.

The clerkship program for St. Mary’s is part of the Board of Regents’ mission to reduce the doctor shortages in Georgia.

The American Medical Association ranks Georgia 40th in terms of having a physician workforce suited to the state’s population. With Georgia’s population expected to grow, the doctor shortage will worsen.

Morris hopes St. Mary’s program will help. “Maybe some of the people that we train here will find out what a wonderful place it is and want to stay here,” Morris said.

Right now, nearly half of young doctors who graduate in Georgia plan to practice medicine here. As St. Mary’s and Athens Regional Medical Center expand their training programs, it’s likely that more young doctors will decide to practice in the Athens area.

Smith comes from Atlanta and Morris from Hartwell, and both wanted to return to Georgia despite receiving their postgraduate training out of state.

Although Smith and Morris bucked the usual trend,  Georgia officials aren’t counting on that. Thus the expansion of in-state training for med students and graduates.

“I would like to practice in Georgia,” said Paul Baker, a third-year medical student who is doing a clinical rotation at the Women’s Medical Clinic in Athens. “I’m keeping my options open, but that’s definitely on the table.”

As enthusiastic as they are about keeping more young doctors in Athens, St. Mary’s staff physicians have had to adjust to a heavier workload because they are supervising medical students.

“It’s more tiresome,” Morris said. “The feeling of responsibility that you have to them causes additional energy to be expended.”

“There’s no doubt that having the students around slows you down,” Smith agreed.

Medical students believe that these apprenticeships are important for both doctors and medical students in Athens.

“It is important to build relationships with doctors in this community because it’s the first time they have ever really seen students,” said Travis Palmer, a third-year medical student who recently finished his neurology rotation with Smith and Morris.

“You’re building both the bridges for tomorrow and for yourself, so that’s essential,” Palmer said.

Although they’ve been partners for many years, Smith and Morris have different styles in the way they teach medical students. Smith’s Bachelor of Arts in English contrasts with Morris’s Bachelor of Science in Chemistry.

“They definitely have very different personalities,” Palmer said. While Morris teaches by having students ask questions and giving feedback, Smith goes through everything, says Palmer.

Palmer believes both doctors are strong role models who showed him how to be compassionate toward patients.

Different teaching approaches impact how medical students learn. A 2012 study shows that some combinations of teaching style and learning style work better than others.

Meeting different doctors is a way to discover the many ways medicine can be practiced.

“You definitely find the physicians whose style that kind of matches your personality and your way of interacting with patients,” he said.

For doctors at St. Mary’s, the transition from community hospital to teaching hospital is a work in progress. Training slots are expected to increase in the coming years.

Adding a teaching mission changes the hospital and the lives of its doctors. Smith believes that having the students around makes him a better doctor.

“Now with the students here, it’s helping sick people and secondarily passing on any wisdom about medicine that you’ve accumulated over long years of doing it,” Smith said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *