Craig in need of doctors

Shortage has TMH, medical professionals scrambling

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— Recruiting new doctors to Moffat County has been a primary focus for The Memorial Hospital for years, said Samantha Johnston, the hospital's service excellence officer.

Now that two of the area's family doctors have left the community - Dr. Thomas Told and Dr. Andre Huffmire - the challenge is that much greater, she added.

Told's departure, and the future of the Craig Medical Clinic, which he ran for decades, will impact the entire community, Johnston said. Finding more doctors is "incredibly important."

"We're all in this together," she said. "We need to do everything we can."

Hospital officials think the county needs at least 11 family doctors to serve its residents, which is about triple the four here now. Add in Dr. Andy Hughes - a physician recruited by TMH and expected to start in February - and there still isn't half the number needed.

It's not only the hospital that sees a problem.

Karen Zimmerman, office manager for Kinder Family Clinic, said her office has been "busy, busy, busy" since the departures of Told and Huffmire.

She added the Kinder clinic was in some ways lucky to find a nurse practitioner who lived in Steamboat Springs and was willing to come on part time at the beginning of December.

Especially fortuitous is that the practitioner, Brenda Renz, specializes in senior and adult medicine. Zimmerman said that because Told and Huffmire served the area for so many years, they had a lot of elderly patients who now need to find care elsewhere.

Because she and others can see the writing on the wall, the Kinder clinic is trying to recruit another family doctor, much like what TMH and Told attempted to accomplish before he left for Denver.

Recruitment is not easy, Johnston said.

When hospital officials first heard Told may leave Moffat County about a year ago, a combined effort started to recruit new physicians. Although it is not the hospital's responsibility to make sure the clinics in town have enough doctors, Johnston said, everyone recognizes the need.

Unfortunately, Told was not successful, and the hospital signed only one.

"One will not be enough," Johnston said. "We hoped to have three or four, but we have one."

Aside from the doctor situation, the future of Told's clinic also is up in the air.

Hughes, the newly hired TMH doctor, will be available for anyone in the community who needs to see a general medicine practitioner.

Whether the hospital can afford to purchase the Craig Medical Clinic building and its patient files is another matter, Johnston said.

Rohrich said he thinks a final decision on the Craig Medical Clinic will be made within the next week. Johnston said that will give enough time to have a plan in place for Hughes' start in February.

Hughes will need to practice somewhere, she said, but it's unclear whether that location will be the hospital or the clinic.

At the moment, the hospital has no contracts with Told or the clinic - written, verbal or otherwise - with the exception of a signed confidentiality agreement to protect private financial information, Johnston said.

The hospital is concerned that it won't be able to afford Told's building, particularly because all its money is going toward the new hospital's loan payments, she added. As well, TMH plans to build its own clinical building next to the new hospital and isn't sure purchasing another building is a responsible decision.

As for Told's patient files, Johnston said the hospital is not prepared to take on 1,000 or more new patients without more doctors. Still, TMH wants to work with all of the area's medical professionals to find a solution.

The hospital will "actively pursue" a way to purchase the clinic, Johnston said, but because of its community obligations to build a new hospital and serve its patients, it cannot risk overextending itself.

"In all of this, we're looking at these things: what works well for the community, what we can afford and what makes good business sense," Johnston said. "Throughout these discussions, we have tried very hard not to make promises we can't deliver, to the Tolds or to the community, which is why we are proceeding with caution."

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