New physicians underscore strength of health care industry

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— The addition of seven new physicians to the community this summer brings the total number of doctors on the active medical staff at Yampa Valley Medical Center to just more than 50.

Community leaders in other rural towns of 10,000 might be delighted if their towns could claim five physicians. In Steamboat Springs, there is roughly one physician for every 200 people. And that doesn't include more physicians who spend several working days a month here as members of the hospital's associate medical staff.

"Health care is probably emerging as one of our core industries," Scott Ford said. "This is really becoming more of a regional medical center."

Ford, who chairs the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council, believes the local medical industry has the potential to grow to become almost as important to the local economy as mining and tourism.

Dr. David Cionni, chief of staff at Yampa Valley Medical Center, said the number of physicians practicing medicine here can be attributed in part to the number of patients driven by the tourism industry and one of the largest ski areas in the world. Representing another trend are successful physicians who come here as much for

the lifestyle as they do for business expectations.

"A typical town of 10,000 in a frontier county doesn't have the number of people coming through that we have here," Cionni said.

Some physicians who have relocated here are already successful in their careers, and can pursue their profession at a more relaxed pace than they did earlier in their careers.

"We have some applicants who can come here without real concern for what their business might be like," Cionni said.

Ford said the impact of second-home owners on the local customer base for medical services should not be underestimated. In their minds, Steamboat is often home, although they may spend more months of the year in a big city like Chicago. The availability of a high level of health care is a big part of their decision-making.

"It definitely is an asset in our community that weighs heavily for them," Ford said. "They are reasonably affluent and they come from sophisticated markets."

During focus groups he conducted for the new Routt County Consumer Preference survey, Ford heard loud and clear that health-care facilities are viewed as a very important asset in the community. The survey also showed that the dollars spent on health care by Steamboat residents largely remain here. Only 8.5 percent of Steamboat residents surveyed leave town to see a doctor. The number is only slightly higher for dental services.

"We tend to fix ourselves here," whether it's our automobiles or our bodies, Ford said.

Cionni said the members of the medical profession here make a deliberate effort to ensure the physicians who are among the active medical staff at the hospital are emotionally invested in the community.

"We have tried through our medical staff bylaws to create a situation where people are full-time members of the community and have a full-time commitment," Cionni said.

As chief of staff, he acts as a liaison between the doctors and the hospital.

Dr. Jennifer Kempers will be the newest member of the medical staff at YVMC when she begins practicing internal medicine at Yampa Valley Medical Associates. She relocated to Steamboat this year after working for three years at a large hospital in Tucson, Ariz. Her husband, Dr. Scott Kempers, is an anesthesiologist who replaced Dr. Ted de la Garza at Elk River Anesthesiology. The Kempers found their jobs in Steamboat by making telephone calls.

"Scott grew up in Grand Junction and we wanted to be close to family, but Grand Junction is a little too big for us. We wanted to be in a small town," she said.

Jennifer Kempers grew up in Los Alamos, N.M., and earned her degrees from the University of New Mexico. During her three years in Tucson, she admitted patients to the hospital on behalf of their primary care physicians.

"It was a lot of volume and a lot of sick people," she said. "That was a good transition for me coming out of my training."

One of the advantages of being based at the hospital in Tucson was that she didn't have to establish her own practice. As a result, as a young doctor, she did not incur all of the business costs associated with opening a medical practice.

In Steamboat, she expects to enjoy small town living combined with the advantages of a hospital worthy of a larger city.

"The medical facility is very appealing," Kempers said. ""It has all the technology you could want."

When she begins seeing patients this month she will be associated with Yampa Valley Medical Associates, and working with longtime local physicians in an established office. Initially, she'll work part-time, allowing her to spend more time with her two children.

Cionni, who moved here from Denver a decade ago, said as an emergency room physician, it's reassuring to have a large base of doctors in Steamboat to back him up. "It really is an outstanding quality and depth of services," Cionni said.

Ford said if there is cause for concern in Steamboat's burgeoning health-care industry, it might be the widening health insurance crisis. The success of local medical practices is built in part on the ability of local workers to access health benefits.

"It directly impacts these guys," Ford said. "Their success is somewhat related to our ability to pay for it."


--To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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