Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta commits millions to grow rural pediatric care


Scott Seigel, the Market Preseident at Truist, speaks to press outside of the Atrium Health Navicent Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital in Macon, Ga. on Tuesday, Aug. 23. “We couldn’t be more excited to see all the smiles on the faces this morning that the children had when they came up to have their picture taken,” he said of the chance for patients to take photographs with the Braves World Series Commissioner’s Trophy. (Photo by Evey Wilson Wetherbee)

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is dedicating $200 million in long-term funding for ambitious plans to improve pediatric health care in rural parts of the state.

A large part of those funds will pay back tuition for 10 students at the Mercer University School of Medicine who commit to practicing rural pediatrics for four years after graduation, starting this year.

Jean Sumner, dean of the School of Medicine, said she’s confident this initiative will create “foundational change” in the state.

“We have great rural hospitals, and I’ve worked in one my whole life,” said Sumner, who has over 30 years of experience working as a physician at Washington County Regional Medical Center.

“But taking care of children’s needs is a challenge sometimes when you don’t see many,” Sumner said. “We want to build confidence in the local community of the ability of their rural hospitals, and build the skill of those physicians in the emergency room.”

The Mercer School of Medicine has similar scholarship programs to incentivize rural practice, but none so far that focus on pediatrics.

Baylee Bruton is a fourth-year medical student at Mercer.

“I think sometimes the debt part of medical school can limit where people go and what they feel like they can do,” Bruton said. “And so having a scholarship that can help us feel more comfortable going to a rural area and being able to pay back our loans is a huge plus.”

Georgia has about 17 pediatric physicians per 100,000 people — just below the national average. But most work at large hospitals in urban parts of the state. The majority of counties in south Georgia have between zero and five pediatricians.

CEO of CHOA, Donna Hyland, said some students who receive the scholarship may be the only pediatrician in the county.

“That’s why the work we’re doing with pediatricians will be so important,” Hyland said.

Meaning those students will have access to a network of pediatric specialists from CHOA that will also work with the partnering facilities, Hyland said.

“It is ambitious, but it’s going to be so important,” Hyland said. “I just am a firm believer … helping a child be healthy from the beginning is going to make them a much healthier adult.

Part of the millions in funding will be set aside for CHOA’s “Kid Ready” initiative, in which eight rural health care facilities will receive support from CHOA physicians to be better prepared to handle emergency pediatric patients.

Hyland said CHOA will provide training to existing staff at those facilities, and pay for special equipment.

Hospitals in Crisp, Upson, Rabun and Coffee county are included in that initiative.

“Most of the emergency room physicians are trained in adult emergency medicine,” Hyland said of the partner hospitals. “What we’ll be doing is working with pediatric emergency rooms to make sure they have the right equipment, because you could have a two-pound patient up to an 18-year-old.”

Five pediatricians in Worth, Lauren’s, Dodge, Coffee and Washington will also receive hands-on support from CHOA specialists, including after-hours support and training.

Nelliena Young is a fourth-year medical student from Albany, with training experience at Atrium Health Navicent in Macon.

“We get a lot of families being transferred from different hospitals who don’t have, necessarily, the trained specialists, pediatricians, that can care for kids,” Young said. “Just providing pediatricians in regular emergency departments with training would be life changing to so many people.”

CHOA is the largest provider of pediatric care in Georgia with more than 60 pediatric specialties.  Last year, it treated over 32,000 children from rural counties, Hyland said, from all 159 counties.

During a press conference for the original announcement made at the Georgia Capitol on Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp pointed to proposed investments to try and tackle a shrinking health care workforce in rural Georgia.

Alongside former Gov. Nathan Deal, a graduate of Mercer University, Kemp said his administration plans to add 102 residency slots for medical students under a program started by Deal during his time in office.

“We have got to grow rural Georgia,” Kemp said. “Whether they’re hospitals, clinics, physicians, practices, those are the things that we have to continue to do.”

In the 2024 budget, Kemp has also set aside around $4.5 million to expand the state’s loan repayment program for health care workers.

This story comes to The Macon Newsroom through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.