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Calling all doctors

Calling all physicians and midlevel medical providers, the Upper San Juan Health Service District (USJHSD) is now hiring.

With the opening of a rural health clinic looming on the horizon, the district needs additional staff — particularly in the wake of recent departures by Dr. Robert Bricca, and Drs. Tim and Beth Mazzola, all formerly of Pagosa Family Medical Center (PFMC). Each also worked several shifts at the neighboring Pagosa Mountain Hospital (PMH).

Dr. Mark Wienpahl, also of PFMC and the current PMH Chief of Staff, has also given notice of his intent to leave the area next summer for an undetermined period of time.

Dr. Joanna Estes, who also works with PFMC, will no longer provide primary care by June, but will continue contracting with the hospital ER for now. Though the district is actively recruiting new practitioners, this recent outward migration has temporarily left the community in short supply of general providers.

In a recent interview, PMH Chief Executive Officer Brad Cochennet said that both the district and PFMC are actively recruiting additional practitioners.

“We’re talking to a number of people in various stages of recruitment,” Cochennet said. “We’ve signed a contract for a physician assistant (PA) that will start (at the hospital) in February, and we have another half-a-dozen conversations and negotiations underway.”

Cochennet seemed confident that current openings will soon be filled, saying, “We hope to, in the next 60 days, be able to say we’ve hired a couple more people. We’d like at least one more full-time person to work the hospital ER and we’ll have a rural health clinic with undetermined needs.”

In a previous conversation, Cochennet suggested the district would soon hire a couple more midlevels to work the hospital ER, with an eye on two to four more as the proposed rural health clinic becomes reality, sometime next spring.

He also expressed interest in hiring sufficient staff to facilitate the “leasing” of practitioners to PFMC, though Dr. Jim Pruitt (of PFMC) also hopes to recruit staff for the center. For now, he, Estes and Nurse Practitioner Dan Keuning will provide primary care until June, when Estes leaves. Beginning this week, Keuning is also manning a one-day-a-week Pagosa Mountain Clinic for the under-served and under-insured.

According to Cochennet, new hires could be any combination of physicians or midlevels, with midlevels being licensed clinical professionals who examine patients, diagnose injuries or illness, and prescribe treatment under the direct supervision of a physician. They include physician assistants, nurse practitioners and certified registered nurse anesthetists.

While Pruitt and Wienpahl do work a few ER shifts a month, physicians from Docs Who Care and Southwest Emergency Physicians (of Durango) have also provided some hospital coverage. Since last fall, however, Martin Neubert, PA has worked the ER full time, as has Dr. Matt Phillips since May.

A Colorado native, Neubert finished undergraduate and early medical studies in the state before completing a surgical residency program in Norwalk, Conn. With 15 years experience as a PA, he served as a paramedic, senior paramedic and flight paramedic in the 10 years prior.

Phillips has practiced medicine for more than 25 years. He attended medical school at McGill University in Quebec before completing a family medicine residency at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver. By the early ’90s, he combined a family practice with emergency medicine in southwest Colorado, before becoming senior ER physician at the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M. He is now a full-time ER doctor at PMH.

As mentioned, Robert Gruver will join the PMH emergency room team in February. After receiving a PA bachelor’s degree in 1993 at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, he became a nationally certified PA the same year. He received a master’s with a fellowship in emergency medicine in 1997, all while serving a 21-year stint with the U.S. Air Force.

With a few competent practitioners now caring for our local sick and injured, the USJHSD still needs additional staff to cover the ER, PFMC and the upcoming rural health clinic. Meanwhile, Cochennet and Pruitt remain hopeful in their efforts to recruit new docs.

After all, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), Archuleta County is now a “Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA)” and a “Medically Underserved Area.”

chuck@pagosasun.com