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Sanford Health: Recruiting effort solves doctor shortage

About 18 months ago, MeritCare-Bemidji faced a serious gap in the number of primary care physicians needed to serve the Bemidji area.

The shortage was part of a nationwide trend. However, Dr. Howard Hoody, formerly MeritCare administrator and now Sanford Clinic-Bemidji senior vice president, said this region - as was the case of many rural clinics - experienced the lack of primary care sooner than some areas.

But the situation has turned for the better.

Sanford Health has been able to recruit and hire five new primary care physicians, a nurse practitioner and a physician's assistant to fill the area's primary care needs.

Hoody, who has served the clinic as a family physician and administrator for more than 31 year - from the days when it was the Bemidji Clinic, expressed gratitude to community members' patience during the time of the primary care shortage.

"We were always good at taking care of the acute illnesses, acute injuries," he said.

But people needing routine care sometimes had to wait longer than was customary for their appointments, he said.

The successful recruitment efforts involved a number of aspects, Hoody said. The parent company was supportive, he said, allocating signing bonuses for new hires. Some of the newcomers have local or regional ties, such as Dr. Promil Bhutani, who has family in Winnipeg. Hoody said others were attracted to the North Country geography, good public schools, Bemidji State University presence, outdoor activity opportunities, burgeoning arts and entertainment availability.

"The community is very gracious," Hoody said.

The other new primary care recruits are Dr. Lisa Harmon, Dr. Judith Mills, Dr. Omokuale Omokodian, Dr. Tracy Blichfeldt, Dr. Chalermklat Thanasawat, Kim Woodland N.P. and Patty Burdick, P.A. In addition, the pediatric department will welcome Dr. Carmen Briones in October.

Hoody said he and his staff are also seeking to expand staff in the cardiology, oncology and neurology departments.

Joy Johnson, North Country Health Services marketing and development director, said the Sanford Health physicians also staff North Country Regional Hospital, along with independent anesthetists and specialists from Lake Region Bone and Joint Clinic. She said the emergency unit is owned by North Country Health Services, but has been staffed by contract physicians from out of town. The contract with the previous staffing entity recently ran out, and NCHS has contracted with Sanford for emergency department services. The goal, she said, is to recruit six or seven full-time emergency staff who will reside in the local area.

She said NCHS is also seeking a partnership with other health care providers. Sanford is one of the entities on the potential partner list, Johnson said.

"We've always been interested in a collaborative relationship with the hospital," Hoody said.

"That's good for everybody," said NCHS President and CEO Paul Hanson.

Hanson said another recent improvement in patient care is the NCRH's Hospitalist Program started in spring 2009. NCHS hired physicians who tend people solely in the hospital and are available 24 hours. That program has also eased the stress on primary care physicians, who previously had to juggle their clinical practice with taking care of patients who are hospitalized. Hospitalists are physicians whose only focus is the care of hospitalized patients, working with the patient's primary care physician to coordinate the patient's care while in the hospital, including ordering diagnostic tests and establishing a treatment plan.

"Are we fully staffed - I don't know if we know the answer to that," Hoody said. "We'll have to see if we meet the access needs of the community and we're responsive to their needs."