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Finding a small-town family practitioner is tough, but Essentia says it can be done in Ada

By Wendy Reuer / The Forum

ADA, Minn. – As the lone doctor to live and work in this Red River Valley community of about 1,700, Dr. Jeff Peterson is woven into the fabric of the city, knowing his patients and their families as well as he knows their health records.

So when Peterson announced he would leave Ada on Dec. 31 for a position at a Veterans Affairs hospital closer to his college-age sons and wife, who is living part time in Fargo, residents became concerned they would lose a full-time doctor for good.

Peterson’s departure comes when hospitals across the country are seeing a shortage of family care physicians. Some rural health centers have closed after doctors have left sleepy small-town living for bustling big cities.

In January, 24 of about 100 open doctor positions within Essentia Health were in family medicine, and the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the country will be short 90,000 doctors over all fields in the next 10 years.

Todd Sawrey, an Ada business owner, chairman of the Economic Development Authority and one of Peterson’s patients, said residents were concerned Essentia would not be willing or able to fill the full-time doctor’s position.

“It’s critical not only for the citizenry of the community, but it’s really something we have come to rely on,” Sawrey said. “(Essentia Health) has doctors that come in from afar, which is nice, but there’s nothing like having that person who lives in the community and knows all of your illnesses, all of your joys.”

Jodi Lorenson, physician recruiter for Essentia Health, said the shortage of family practice doctors nationwide is the result of a high number of retiring practitioners. The average age of doctors in the country now is 55, she said. The number of soon-to-retire doctors is far greater than the number of medical students coming of age to replace them.

But despite the shortage of family practitioners, Ada’s hospital administrator, Ryan Hill, said he’s confident a full-time replacement for Peterson will be found – someone who is willing to relocate to or near the city.

Hill said one challenge to finding a suitable recruit to Ada may be negotiating the number of on-call hours the doctor will serve.

Because Ada offers a full-service hospital and emergency room, and shares a campus with Benedictine Living Community of Ada, a nursing home, Peterson was often on call, Hill said.

“We’ll need to be open to a different model,” he said.

He said Ada’s smaller hospital and tight-knit community may appeal to doctors who want to make a personal connection with their patients.

“That’s appealing to many, but maybe isn’t appealing to others,” Hill said.

Ada’s growing economy won’t hurt the recruitment process, either.

Sawrey said the city has taken an active approach to attract new businesses and growing families who want to live in a smaller community.

“Economically, Ada is really on the cusp of breaking out,” Sawrey said.

The hospital, clinic and nursing home – built in 2000 – are owned by the city. Essentia Health took over administration of the hospital in 2008. The adjoining nursing home is leased from the city by Benedictine Health System, which, like Essentia, is based in Duluth.

In fiscal 2013, patients visited the clinic 6,811 times, and there were 1,086 visits to the emergency room, averaging about three per day. The hospital generated about $7.2 million in revenue and spent about $6.9 million on operating expenses.

Essentia Health Ada employs one doctor, three physician assistants and a nurse practitioner. Seven specialty doctors regularly visit the hospital each week to see patients.

In a recent presentation to the Ada City Council, Hill and Peter Jacobson, president of Essentia Health-St. Mary’s, said there are no plans to reduce the levels of service or number of doctors and high-level practitioners in Ada.

But residents may have to be patient until the right candidate is found for the full-time doctor position. Jacobson said the recruitment process could take three months or three years.

On the upside for Ada residents, a handful of candidates have already shown interest in the position after just a week of advertising, Lorenson said.

“I think we have a great chance of successfully recruiting a good candidate,” Hill said.

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