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Georgia State Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, speaks to the media after a Senate committee approved his bill that would permit those with concealed carry weapons licenses to bring their guns onto public college campuses Monday, March 7, 2016, in Atlanta.

In order to improve the accessibility of physicians across Georgia, a group of lawmakers is pushing the idea of giving added preference to native Georgians in state-funded residency programs.

In its list of final recommendations, the Georgia House Rural Development Council gave the state Legislature plenty to think about when it comes to health care before the 2020 legislative session.

Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, said health care is by far the most important issue the group looked at in the last 12 months.

The group made a total of nine health care-related recommendations in December, many of them focused on how to attract and retain medical professionals and physicians in the state.

Research has shown students are more likely to live and work in the communities where they completed their medical residency programs. To capitalize on that, legislators are pushing for state-funded residency programs to give added preference to native Georgians in order to keep those medical professionals working in the state.

Jasperse said it's imperative that the legislature start looking at how to keep those kids and future physicians in Georgia.

"Say someone starts at Dalton High School, they do their undergrad at the University of Georgia and then go to medical school in Georgia. They have 20 years of education invested in Georgia," he said. "When it comes to residency, for the next two, three years, they can go all over the United States. We want to keep those people in Georgia."

The Georgia Board of Health Care Workforce has been looking for several years at what motivates students to leave.

Leanna Greenwood, a senior data analyst for the board, said the board's annual exit surveys with medical school and residency program graduates are how she and the rest of the team determine why people decide to leave Georgia.

In 2019, more than 26% of the 360 students graduating from medical school said they were leaving Georgia to enroll in a reputable program out of state, while another 15% wanted to stay in Georgia but didn't match with any in-state programs.

Those numbers have improved since 2014, when 41% of students said they were leaving to enroll in a reputable program out of state. Greenwood said another common reason people leave is because of family location.

More than 12% said in 2019 they were leaving based on the quality of Georgia's programs, and 15% said they were leaving for higher-salaried residency positions out of state.

A number that has stayed the same for the last five years is the number of people coming out of their residencies who would be open to working in Georgia. About 50% of people in 2014 and 2019 said they would be open to starting their career in Georgia.

LaSharn Hughes, executive director of the Georgia Board of Health Care Workforce, said getting that number higher has continued to be a point of emphasis for the board.

"Of course we want that higher. Our board is always trying to improve," Hughes said.

The House Rural Development Council also wants Hughes and her team to track graduates for 10 years after they are placed in a rural community.

Hughes said that will help her organization understand the paths students and future physicians take once they secure a job in rural Georgia.

Another hurdle Jasperse said the state faces is the lack of physicians in some counties, while hundreds of others plan to retire in the next five years.

Nine counties in the state have no physicians at all, while seven others only have one. More than 380 physicians in rural Georgia plan to retire in the next five years, and the state is looking at replacing about 1,300 in the next 10 to 15 years.

None of those nine counties without physicians are in Northwest Georgia, but Chattooga County has no pediatric physicians or OB-GYNs.

Jasperse said succession planning is one of the Rural Development Council's top priorities when it comes to health care legislation. There are already a handful of programs medical school students can take advantage of in Georgia to help pay for school.

He said now is the time to start looking at ways to keep them here once school is over.

"We in Georgia have invested tons of money in medical schools and in rural physicians," Jasperse said. "We have really worked hard at it, and we want them to stay here and be successful. We need more doctors in places like Rome, Jasper, Chatsworth and Dalton."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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