After graduating in 1986 from Mercer’s School of Medicine, Dr. Jean Sumner chose to stay in her home state and live out Mercer Medicine’s mission: to educate physicians to meet the primary care and health care needs of rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia.
In keeping with this mission, Sumner has loyally served two of Georgia’s most rural and impoverished counties for the past 28 years.
Sumner spent a successful career in Washington and Johnson Counties before being asked to serve as the new Dean of Mercer’s School of Medicine. Dr. William Bina, her predecessor in the position, announced in 2015 that he would be relocating to Mercer’s Savannah campus to serve as the Medical School’s Dean.
Although the decision to commit full-time to this new position was a difficult one to make, Sumner said she knew that taking the position would give her even greater opportunities to influence rural Georgia.
“It was a very hard decision,” recalls Sumner. “It was an honor, [and] I was humbled by the offer, but when you enjoy your work and you’ve worked in a community for a long time, you’re part of that community, and it’s hard to give up.”
Sumner says that practicing primary care in rural Georgia has made her more flexible and creative, and she believes that these lessons will carry over into her new position.
“When you’re a physician in a rural area, every day is different,” says Sumner said. “You have problems that you’ve never faced before, and you have to learn to be agile and be a team player in order to solve those problems. In the same way, academic medicine is a team sport. It takes everybody in the [Medical School] and in the community to contribute to the best possible educational experience for our students. My job is to be a leader, a coach, and a player at the same time.”
Caitlin Collier, a Mercer Medicine graduate and former student of Dean Sumner, has taken over Sumner’s position in Washington County. Collier has high praise for her mentor and friend.
“I’ve always seen Dr. Sumner as the embodiment of Mercer’s mission to improve health in rural Georgia,” says Collier. “Everything she does is with the purpose of bringing well-trained doctors to small towns. [She] is also the hardest working physician I know. She never stops. She wakes up at night thinking of ways to improve the health of the community.”
Sumner’s dedication to improving rural health in Georgia has, indeed, been making a difference.
“Her patients absolutely idolize her and will miss her terribly,” says Collier. “We have had patients literally weeping in the office when they heard that she was going to stop seeing patients.”
Sumner hopes that Mercer’s School of Medicine will become a national leader of rural health during her time as Dean.
“We need to help produce physicians that are patient advocates,” says Sumner. Although she acknowledges that not every student and faculty member is meant to work in a rural area, she believes that, “every student and every faculty member can contribute in some way to rural health;” whether that be through research, technology advancements, or advocacy.
By pushing the Medical School’s focus on rural health back into the spotlight, Sumner hopes to repay Mercer for the opportunities it has provided her.
“Mercer gave me the opportunity to do something that I absolutely love—to return to a small town and practice medicine,” says Sumner. “It gave me the opportunity to serve my community and make a difference. I feel forever indebted to the University.”