Inside the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University: The First 100 Days With New Dean Dr. David C. Hess

Mollee D. Harper

Monday, May 8th, 2017

Georgia CEO presents this special profile on Dr. David C. Hess, stroke specialist, honored educator, biotech entrepreneur and longtime leader at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. During our one-on-one with Hess, he shares his excitement about his new role as the dean of Georgia’s public medical school, and the continued focus of his work in education, service and research to optimize health care throughout the state including groundbreaking Telehealth service to rural and underserved areas.

Hess joined the MCG faculty in 1990 and served as Chair of the MCG Department of Neurology from 2001-17. In April, Hess was officially named Dean of Georgia’s only public medical school and Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs and Integration for the university.

MCG is Georgia’s first and the nation’s fifth public medical school, founded nearly 200 years ago, in 1828. Today, MCG graduates more physicians than the other four medical schools in the state. About 1 out of 5 practicing physicians in Georgia graduated from MCG and/or completed their training there.

Education is a big focus and component of this institution. Augusta University, home of the Medical College of Georgia, is one of four public comprehensive research institutions in Georgia. The university includes nine colleges and schools with nearly 9,000 students, 1,000 full-time faculty members, 7,000 staff members, and 125 educational programs. In addition, Augusta University is home to the state’s only dental school, the Dental College of Georgia, and an aligned and integrated health system.

Georgia’s public medical school has a statewide campus network that has third- and fourth-year students learning alongside physicians in a variety of clinical venues. MCG also has a second, four-year campus in Athens, the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership, in collaboration with UGA. MCG students train at more than 200 sites across the state including: Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany; St. Joseph’s/Candler in Savannah and Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick; as well as hospitals in Rome including the famed Harbin Clinic. Clinical facilities at the main campus in Augusta include a 478-bed adult hospital and 154-bed children’s hospital, 13-county Level 1 trauma center, and a medical office building with more than 80 outpatient practice sites in one building. MCG faculty also practices at about 80 additional sites across Georgia including Lake Oconee Village in Greensboro and the West Wheeler Medical Clinic in West Augusta.

Statewide Presence

Hess shared, “I joined the Medical College of Georgia as a faculty member in 1990. I served as interim chair in 2000 and then as Chair of Neurology since 2001. In January, I started my service as interim dean before officially stepping into my new role as dean in April. I have just completed my first 100 days.”

“My official title is the Dean of the MCG, the only public medical school in Georgia, and the 13th oldest in the country. We have over 600 full-time faculty, more than 200 part-time faculty and 2,000 volunteer faculty in our medical school. We have 230 students per class, which is large. We are also statewide which is unique. Our main campus is in Augusta but we also have regional campuses throughout the state including a second, four-year campus in Athens, the AU/UGA Medical Partnership, in partnership with the University of Georgia. Our reach is corner to corner encompassing regional campuses in Rome, Savannah, Brunswick, Albany and more.”

“Georgia ranks 40th in the nation in physicians. This is not so great. In the past, we have had terrible health measures. Most health problems are geographically located south of I-16. We have been working hard to impact that statistic and that includes adding campuses and providing clinical services to the most underserved parts of the state, in the southern areas outside of Atlanta.”

“We accelerated this statewide expansion in 2008 under Dr. Miller and continued under Dean Buckley. I’m excited to carry that torch forward now. All of our campuses have a slightly different curriculum.”

Hess added, “Part of the magic for our students is that they can go from caring for super sick patients at our hospital to learning alongside solo practitioners in more rural areas of our state. This gives them a true taste of what the profession of medicine offers so they can find the right specialty for them and hopefully also find they want to practice in an area of Georgia that needs physicians.”

“We believe it is a model that works. MCG has a long and strong reputation for educating really well-trained medical doctors. While our focus is our home state, our medical students are competitive for top training programs across the nation and our alumni are leaders in their professions and communities across Georgia and well beyond.”

Rural Reach and Telehealth

Hess offered, “If you don’t have a good health system and hospital, it impacts both the economic and physical well-being of your community. So we also partner and support other rural hospitals directly where we can."

“There is already a lot of great health care in Atlanta. We are focused on filling the gaps and shortages of good doctors everywhere else in our expansive and largely rural state. We have strong diversity in our faculty and student body and want to continue to attract great talent while serving the specific needs of individual communities throughout Georgia.”

“We are thinking statewide, being innovative, leveraging our campuses throughout, as well as our Telehealth services.”

“Telehealth has been a tremendous tool for helping address a community’s health care disparities and we are continually looking at ways to expand its use. An early and certainly personal interest for me has been improving access to stroke care in Georgia,” says Hess, founder and Chairman of the Board for REACH Health, Inc., a nine-year-old biotech company that packages the need for rapid stroke care with the emerging capabilities of the Internet to provide remote care.”

“At MCG, we have many experts in stroke, a huge problem in rural Georgia, which is considered the ‘stroke belt’ with the highest incidence of strokes in the country. Georgia is large geographically and you can’t always get doctors to remote locations quickly. When you have a stroke, the brain dies quickly. In 2004, we started providing Telestroke services and care through our REACH network.”

“Nine of us co-founded REACH Health, Inc. including other doctors, nurses and more. Antonia Novello, the 14th Surgeon General of the United States and the first female surgeon general, sent her deputies down from New York to review our Telemedicine system. We entered a contest, a business launching competition sponsored by the Georgia Research Alliance and the Technology Association of Georgia. We made it to the finals and won out of 38 entrants. That helped launch our company, which is now based out of Alpharetta.  The GRA has definitely been a big help to me, to our medical school and to research advances in our state,” he notes.

Hess emphasized, “The broader focus is in Telehealth. We were one of the first groups to use it for stroke care. Some people thought we were crazy. Now everyone uses it nationwide. It allows us to do so much more to help folks in rural areas and provide good care efficiently everywhere in the state.”

“We are really doing a lot with Telemedicine and plan to do more, but you will always need boots on the ground too.”

Clinical Care and Research

“What makes my job really exciting is not just being part of the university but also being part of the health system. At academic medical centers – which is basically a medical school and it’s teaching hospitals – it’s terrific because all the missions – medical education, patient care and research – blend and strengthen each other.”

“After medical school, for example, medical students typically go through 3-8 years of residency training and fellowships. Our Health System enables us to offer graduate medical education programs here too, with more than 500 residents and fellows training in 47 different programs or specialties. We are always working collaboratively to incrementally increase the number of residents training in a particular area of shortage, like primary care, as well as subspecialty care. As an example, this summer we start the state’s first gynecologic-oncology fellowship. We are proud to help educate a lot of physicians for Georgia, in addition to our missions of clinical care and research.”

 “We are also really proud of our research and want to enhance that in the future. We have, as a great example, the Georgia Cancer Center here with some top-notch researchers that we work with in this area. We aspire to be NCI designated, a high bar but one we’re working to reach.”

Hess described, “Our focuses in both the clinical and research areas are the top health concerns in our state and nation:  cancer, heart and cardiovascular diseases, stroke and neurosciences, regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal disease, vision, diabetes and obesity and population health. In addition to our efforts to address the problems in rural Georgia, we really want to impact the overall health of all residents throughout our state. Everyone focuses on diseases, which we need. But we also want to focus on health and wellness.”

“We also want to enhance interprofessional health care with optimal collaboration between doctors working with nurse practitioners working with physical therapists, occupational therapists, and pharmacists. Every good thing you do is a team effort.”

Hess celebrated, “It is a great job and great opportunity to not only discover cures for diseases and provide expert medical care, but to optimize health care and wellness for all Georgians. There is no better job in the world.”

“I still see patients,” he adds. “They keep me grounded.”

The Next 100 Days

Hess concluded, “Augusta University is my home. I’ve spent my whole career here and never looked anywhere else. I have a great staff to work with. This is the best job anyone could have. It doesn’t get any better than this. The people here are very loyal to MCG. It’s a great medical school with a lot of charm. I am excited to see what we can accomplish in the next 100 days.”

Hess earned his undergraduate degree in humanities from Johns Hopkins University and his medical degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He completed a neurology residency and cerebrovascular fellowship at MCG before joining the faculty in 1990. Hess is board-certified in internal medicine, neurology and vascular neurology.