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MeritCare-Bemidji works to ease primary care physician shortage

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Patients are frustrated when they can't get in to see their doctors in a timely fashion.

MeritCare-Bemidji, along with clinics nationwide, has struggled with the shortage of primary care physicians. But efforts to provide access have begun to pay off, said Jodi Mutnansky, MeritCare marketing director.

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"There's still a shortage, but we're putting full-out effort to recruiting," she said.

Effort to improve patient access at MeritCare-Bemidji include increasing the number of walk-in providers for non-critical problems and increasing the number of nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

"We haven't really had the mid-level practice before," Mutnansky said.

The nurse practitioners or physician assistants work with physicians to address medical issues and allow more patients to be cared for in a shorter time.

The strategy also involves hiring additional family practice providers, including temporary hires, such as Dr. Judith Mills, who has signed a three-month contract.

MeritCare-Bemidji has also hired Dr. Omokhuale Omokhodion, a family practice physician, and nurse practitioners Marci Maple and Kimberly Woodland.

MeritCare-Bemidji Executive Partner Dan Olson said people who have a regular physician don't experience the same lack of access as do newcomers. He added that certain specialties including eye services, obstetrics, surgical services, pediatrics, occupational health and sports medicine also have readily available access.

Olson noted that MeritCare also has branch clinics in Blackduck, Cass Lake and Walker, and sometimes patients will choose to drive to one of these branches if they will have a delay of service in Bemidji.

"There is more availability there than our family doctors here," said Mutnansky.

Another service that began May 1 is North Country Regional Hospital's hospitalist. Olson said most young physicians coming out of residency are used to having hospitalists on hand to make morning and evening rounds for them.

"That's going to be huge in recruiting," he said.

Another recruitment tool soon to be available online is a video with interviews by MeritCare-Bemidji physicians who describe the quality of life and their practices in Bemidji. The video will be available on the city of Bemidji Web site www.ci.bemidji.mn.us.

Dr. Howard Hoody, executive partner physician at MeritCare-Bemidji, is also making personal visits to residency programs in Duluth, Minneapolis and Sioux Falls, S.D., to recruit new physicians.

Mutnansky said MeritCare- Bemidji has also invested in staff efficiency training so people who call should be able to get the answers they need without being transferred from department to department.

"We don't want people to lose faith," said Mutnansky. "We understand there's a patient access pressure. We're doing everything to fix it.

"We've made a lot of progress in the last six months, and we're going to make a lot of progress in the next six months."

"Because we live and work in the community, and these are our friends and neighbors who are being affected by this, we are working very hard to accommodate the needs in Bemidji and the surrounding area," Olson said.

mmiron@bemidjipioneer.com

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