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Mercer Medical School, UGA Extension work to recruit future doctors

Jean Sumner is a third-generation rural doctor. As a child, she watched her grandfather and father care for the residents of Washington County. She followed in their footsteps and became a “small-town doctor,” the kind that knows your mother, sits behind you in church and roots for the local football team.

“Now in rural Georgia, there are no physicians, so children can’t aspire to be something they don’t see. They don’t see that role model out there, so we have to connect with them some way,” said Sumner, who became dean of the Mercer University School of Medicine (MUSM) after a 28-year career as a physician in Washington County.

In her role at MUSM, Sumner sees fewer and fewer new doctors choosing to stay in Georgia to practice medicine. In an effort to encourage students to study medicine and become doctors in the Peach State’s rural communities, she turned to Georgia 4-H, a youth development program administered by University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, for help.

“Four-H is a leadership organization and physicians are some of the most influential people in their communities,” said Sumner. “Four-H is full of the best and the brightest of young people. It gives them a chance to excel, have a mentor and connect with something that is greater than them. I was a 4-H’er and I’ve always been impressed with 4-H.”

Sumner, along with UGA Extension Southeast District 4-H Program Development Coordinator Lee Anna Deal, Effingham County 4-H Agent Abby Smith and Bleckley County 4-H Agent Brandi McGonagill, created a program called “Setting Your Sights on Medical School.”

The program’s goal is to expose Georgia 4-H’ers from medically underserved, rural Georgia to the idea that medical school is an option for them, Smith said. Members of 4-H must apply to the program, and accepted students travel to Macon for an inside look at medical school through sessions led by MUSM students and faculty. There are about 30 4-H’ers in each session of the program.

Georgia 4-H’ers rotate through stations to learn about basic physiology, patient interaction, rural medicine, telemedicine, medical research and more.

The 4-H’ers also receive information about admission requirements and scholarships, like MUSM’s Nathan Deal Scholarship. This scholarship pays 95 percent of a student’s tuition for up to four years if the student agrees to work for four years in a medically underserved, rural Georgia county. 

A private university, MUSM is funded by the state for one purpose: to prepare students to become doctors for underserved, rural Georgia, Sumner said. Medical school students graduate with about $200,000 in debt, she said.

To date, 84 high school-aged 4-H’ers have participated in three events in Macon in fall 2016, spring 2017 and fall 2017. The next session will be held on Mercer University’s campus in Savannah.

In addition to introducing 4-H’ers to medical school, the program allows the students to benefit from the university’s resources, like medical models of human body parts.

For more information about the Georgia 4-H program, visit