Since he was a little kid, Wesley Durrance has dreamed of being a doctor in his small hometown in Tattnall County.
That’s why the Glennville native chose to study at the Mercer University School of Medicine, whose mission is to train doctors to provide medical care to rural and underserved communities in Georgia.
On Wednesday morning, the medical school reaffirmed that mission at the grand opening of its new primary care clinic in Plains.
“This will be very important to Plains in terms of access, but also it will inspire other medical students to come to Plains and hopefully stay and practice in Plains,” Durrance said. “And more so than just Plains ... the experiences here might inspire the students to go practice in a very similar town, so people just like the people in Plains can get access across the state.”
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After the Plains Medical Center closed in March, Plains resident and former President Jimmy Carter encouraged the medical school to establish a new clinic in his hometown.
Following four months of planning and prep, Mercer Medicine Plains started accepting patients in July, and it’s already scheduled near capacity through October.
Once the Plains clinic gets off the ground, the medical school hopes to open more satellite primary care centers throughout rural Georgia.
“Our goal in these clinics is to create a model that’s sustainable, not only individually, but that could be replicated and could be sustained across the state,” said Charles Duffey, chief operating officer of Mercer Medicine. “And really the best way we can do that is to remove the administrative burden from the physician, centralize it in our 27-provider practice in Macon, and allow them just to practice medicine.
“And I believe that we’ve done that effectively here.”
The clinic will offer a range of services, including internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and marriage and family therapy. In addition to on-site care from a family medicine doctor, a nurse practitioner and several other support staff members, specialists based in other parts of the state will counsel patients from afar through telehealth technology.
Mercer medical students will also have the chance to work at the clinic as part of their training rotations, in an effort to show students the impact they can have in a rural community like Plains.
Through the Nathan Deal Scholarship, the medical school covers 85 to 100 percent of tuition for a select group of students who commit to at least four years of full-time medical practice in rural Georgia after graduation.
Durrance, one of the scholarship recipients, said it’s important to provide proper medical care in small communities because residents often struggle to maintain healthy lifestyles.
“The people in rural Georgia suffer from poverty, they suffer from lack of access to health care right now, and they suffer from lack of education, in terms of proper nutrition and medical education,” Durrance said. “And providing access and physicians in those communities would allow people to right those wrongs before problems become emergent.
“It allows people to get quality health care in their hometown.”
Without easy access to health care, Durrance said, residents who can’t afford to drive far distances to the next-closest clinic are more likely to seek treatment at the emergency room, which is often expensive. He said routine primary care can prevent medical emergencies and increase life expectancy.
It’s not easy to sustain a clinic or hospital in a rural area, though.
Seven rural hospitals have closed in Georgia since 2010, according to a study by the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program. Only two states, Texas and Tennessee, closed more rural hospitals during that time.
Medical care is costly to provide, and rural health care centers that only serve a small pool of patients can struggle to break even.
“Some of the barriers are having the institutions that open these clinics up and finance them just see that sometimes it can be a slow process,” said Michael Raines, Plains Medical Center’s family medicine doctor. “But with the right attitude and the right staff and the support of the institution, these clinics will flourish because it’s a huge need in the rural areas.”
Raines said that in small communities, doctors can cultivate close friendships with patients.
“That’s where primary care medicine should be, is physician-patient relationships, which is more important in rural areas, because you’re the only access they have a lot of times,” he said.
Plains resident Mary Jo Dodson said the new clinic will make it a lot easier to get care, especially for patients who can’t easily travel.
“I’m mainly afraid that people won’t go to the doctor anymore if they don’t have access to it close at-hand,” Dodson said.
Having traveled over an hour at times for care in the past, she’s happy about her new five-minute commute to the doctor.
Like Dodson, Durrance grew up in a rural community and knows how difficult it can be to get medical care in an isolated area. He’s excited to treat rural patients, but he knows he’ll face barriers.
“It takes a strong heart to come back to rural Georgia and practice with these limited resources,” Durrance said. “But at the same point in time, the reward is greater than anywhere else you could possibly imagine. Especially, I know what it’s like to need health care in rural Georgia. That’s the reason I’m going into it. That’s the reason I’m going into medicine.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.