Medical residency program to extend care to older adults in Athens, Ga.

Athens, Georgia is a great place to live if you are retired.  Forbes magazine said so in February 2013, echoing earlier endorsements from CNN and AARP.

The number of Class City residents over 65 has grown from 8,200 to nearly 14,000 in 13 years. Some have always lived here but others moved to this lively college town after years of punching a time clock.

Like the rest of the nation’s 78 million baby boomers, these folks will likely need more health care as they grow older. That’s why “doctor availability” is one of the criteria that Forbes uses to rank potential retirement destinations. And why “great health care” stands out in CNN’s write-up of Athens.

Retired pharmacist Doug Huston, 62, certainly considered the availability of doctors and hospitals when he moved to Athens from Savannah about 5 years ago. He’s had cataract surgery since relocating and says he is “very happy” with local medical care.

Houston believes that if Athens beefs up health services for seniors, it will become an even more powerful magnet for retirees.  What older adults are looking for, he said, are doctors who treat them as whole people, do not talk down to them, and ones who do not use terms that are too technical.

Right now, a local hospital and a new medical school campus are working together to make this happen.

“We are in the final stages of establishing an internal medicine residency program at St. Mary’s [Hospital],” said Dr. Don Scott, a professor at Georgia Regents University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership (GRU-UGA Partnership).

Scott is a board-certified internist with additional, specialized training in geriatrics. Internal medicine residency programs typically last three years and prepare doctors to manage all the common ailments found in adults from age 21 and up. Geriatricians like Scott, however, spent several additional years learning more about the needs of people 65 and older.

“Geriatrics is not a sexy specialty,” Scott said. Medical melodramas on TV do not feature geriatricians with six-pack abs.

The new residency program planned for St. Mary’s Hospital will not focus on geriatrics per se, but on internal medicine. Internists outnumber geriatric specialists and they deliver most of the care needed by older people.

Georgia Board of Regents has earmarked $300,000 to help St. Mary’s and the GRU-UGA Medical Partnership hire faculty, organize a curriculum, and renovate parts of the hospital to meet national accreditation standards.

If all goes according to plan, the new residency program will begin by 2015 and enroll as many as 10 students. They will be newly graduated M.D.s who arrive knowing how to take medical histories, do clinical evaluations and identify risk factors likely to cause problems down the road.

Practicing at the hospital, supervised by veteran physicians, the future internists will become experts on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of adult diseases.

Wear and tear takes a toll and as people age they are more likely to multiple health conditions at once. Ongoing issues such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol level or diabetes may worsen, and new problems may crop up. Balance may become trickier, weight may fluctuate, thinking and memory can become cloudy and depression may set in.

Because internal medicine doctors greatly outnumber geriatricians, and older people outnumber young ones in the waiting room, internists will deliver the bulk of geriatric care as Americans age.

One main reason for creating new residency programs in Athens and other Georgia cities is that doctors are more likely to set up shop in communities where they complete their training.

Huston, the retired pharmacist, is among the Athenians who believe that such programs will attract people looking to make Athens their retirement destination.

Some Athenians have already interacted with medical students and residents and have mixed reactions to the experience.

Dorothy Hurt, who is, 66, moved to Athens six and a half years ago to be closer to medical care. She has trouble with her balance and relies on a walker and public transportation to get around. She used to live in Elberton, a smaller town about an hour northeast of Athens, but was worried about obtaining needed health care there.

“I would rather have a doctor in there with me,” she said, referring to an encounter with a medical student. “Just in case there is a wrong diagnosis.”

Her desire to have a more senior doctor in the room is mostly about piece of mind, she admits, and she understands the benefits of having a training program that will increase the number of physicians in the long run.

Her own encounter with a student turned out fine, “At first I felt nervous,” she said. “But then after a couple of minutes I got all right because I realized she knew what she was doing.”

Katie Ball

Katie Ball

Katie Ball is a second-year HMJ student aiming for a career in broadcast journalism. Her interests include medical technology research and sustainable environmental practices, and she develops web content for the Georgia Sea Grant Program, an organization promoting outreach and education on the Georgia coast. In 2010, she earned a B.F.A. in speech communication with a minor in sociology from Valdosta State University.

Leave a Reply

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