New family docs in town

OLYMPIA - Two family medical practices on Olympia's west side are the latest efforts by the county's two hospitals to address the increased need for primary care in South Sound.

The newest addition is Providence Family Medicine West Olympia, a clinic that opened in October at 1217 Cooper Point Road. Capital Medical Center on Capital Mall Drive opened the Olympia Family Medicine clinic last summer. Both practices serve an area that one hospital executive said was “dramatically underserved in primary care.”

Citing a recent study, South Sound could use about two dozen more primary care doctors, said Dr. Rik Emaus, chief executive of the Providence Physician Network, who also oversees the Providence west side clinic. The new clinic operates out of a 3,500-square-foot office and has a staff of eight, including doctors Lynda Stafford and Maribeth Duffy.

Capital Medical Center opened Olympia Family Medicine, headed by Dr. Stephen Albrecht, in renovated space last summer. The hospital invested $1.3 million to transform 7,800 square feet of space on its second floor into 24 patient rooms after it acquired the South Sound medical group. At the time, Olympia Family Medicine had four doctors, a nurse practitioner and room to grow, said Albrecht.

Emaus acknowledged that the lack of primary care doctors could be tied to the country’s health care system, which tends to pay more to doctors in specialized medicine and less to those in primary and preventive care.

“It’s a product of what we have invested in as part of our health care system,” he said.

Contributing to the shortage of primary care doctors are medical school graduates, burdened by debt, who gravitate toward specialized medicine to pay down student loans, Emaus said. The result is that without enough primary care doctors, patients go without care or rely on more costly visits to an emergency room, he said.

“Emergency care is much more expensive and the patient has no relationship with the doctor,” Emaus said.

That relationship with a family doctor is key, he said, calling it the “gateway to the health care system.” The family doctor offers routine, acute and chronic disease management and helps patients navigate a highly complex medical system, Emaus said. “They are charged with the primary relationship for care,” he said.

When Providence announced plans for the new clinic last summer, Michael Motte, then Capital Medical’s chief executive, called the move “predatory.” At the time, Capital was days away from opening Olympia Family Medicine.

The Providence west side clinic, about a mile from Capital Medical Center, is not a targeted marketing maneuver to take business away from Capital, but part of a “broad commitment to primary care,” Emaus said. In addition to the new west side clinic, the hospital also plans to open East Olympia Family Medicine in the second half of 2010, he said.

Capital’s Albrecht, of Olympia Family Medicine, agreed. “Any expansion of primary care is a good thing,” he said.

Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403