Heal Thyself: Why finding a doctor in Traverse City is getting harder

There is a growing issue in and around Traverse City’s healthcare scene, where doctor’s offices are seeing a big influx of new patient inquiries sparked by local population growth.

The trend is creating a quandary where finding a physician accepting new patients – letting alone getting in for an actual appointment – is increasingly a combination of waiting game, trial and error, and luck.

Much has been made, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, about the number of people flocking to northern Michigan. As remote work has untethered workers from their corporate offices, many individuals and families have set a course for Traverse City.

That trend has brought a variety of heavily discussed side effects, some of them positive (like the highly skilled and experienced professionals joining our business community), while some of them are causing growing pains (such as the out-of-control real estate market costs or a scarcity of childcare that’s now reached crisis levels.

One far less-discussed trend? What the great migration north means for the capacity and bandwidth of local healthcare systems – particularly when it comes to primary care offices.

In preparation for this story, the TCBN called around to eight different primary care offices in town and asked a (seemingly) simple question: Are you currently accepting new patients? And while two practices indicated that they are currently closed to any new patient intakes, the answers proved significantly less straightforward at other practices.

Brookside Family Medicine, for instance, is accepting new patients – but only for one of its four physicians. A receptionist at Partners in Family Practice, meanwhile, said the practice is currently “Taking information to review by two of our doctors and taking new patients as we go,” but noted that the office is currently “very busy.”

And a representative at Northern Michigan Medicine and Pediatrics said the office was still directing callers to fill out the new patient request form on its website, but cautioned that, due to extremely high demand, the practice was “scheduling appointments further out” for new patients than it normally would.

According to Ellen Smith, who serves as COO for the Munson Physician Network, there has been an “ebb and flow” in the ability of local practices to take on new patients lately. The Munson Physician Network offers a variety of resources – most notably, an online “Find a Doctor” feature on the MunsonHealthcare.org website – that patients can use to search doctors in the Munson system that meet certain parameters.

The tool allows patients to refine their searches by specifying details such as practice location, medical specialty, and which insurance carriers a practice will accept. One key aspect of the search is that it allows patients to see which doctors have indicated they are currently accepting new patients. Smith acknowledged that more doctors are closed to new patients these days than has historically been the norm.

“Our patient needs and our ability to accept new patients – that all varies,” Smith said. “COVID had a significant impact.”

Smith says that some patients were fearful of going into a medical location, and others were realizing how important it is to ensure they’re getting the appropriate health and wellness checkups and treatments.

“Generally speaking, we try to always accept new patients, depending on demand and our capacity,” she said. “But it may take a little bit longer to get individuals into some of our practices right now.”

The Munson Physician Network, Smith said, represents “a mix of both employed practices within Munson Healthcare and independent community-based practices.” In total, across all specialties and geographies, the Munson Physician Network lists more than 1,300 different physicians in the area, 563 of whom are currently marked as “accepting new patients.” A search for family medicine physicians within 10 miles of Traverse City’s 49686 zip code yielded 58 doctors, with 27 of them currently accepting new patients. Those numbers indicate that less than 50% of the doctors in the area are currently open to new patients.

Patients using the Find a Doctor feature to look for physicians in particular medical specialties may have an even harder time. For instance, the network shows zero rheumatologists in the area who are currently open to new patients and zero OBGYNs.

Smith said that Munson is very cognizant of where the shortfalls are within the system. She and her team regularly communicate with practices to assess who has availability and “where we have gaps or see the need to improve our access and patient care.” Specialty medicine tends to be a bigger concern than primary care, with Smith naming categories “like endocrinology, rheumatology, and neurology” as “areas where we know we have access constraints.”

The past few years have shined a light on those constraints, and not just because people were moving to northern Michigan in droves.

“It’s an interesting dynamic, because not only do we have individuals moving to northern Michigan, but we also have, within our provider population, individuals who have decided to retire,” Smith explained.

This means Munson is actively recruiting, consistently, across primary care practices and specialty practices, and working as proactively as possible to plan for population growth and upcoming retirements.

Then there was the pandemic, where the system also had to do a lot of shifting of providers because of staff illness.

“We had to make sure that we were able to shift provider resources to maintain access in places like our walk-in clinics and our urgent cares,” she said. “For those individuals who needed immediate care, we wanted to be sure we had resources available to meet those needs.”

That flexibility is something that Smith said Munson wants to try to maintain throughout the Physician Network in the years to come.

“Not only does having a workforce that’s flexible provide better access for patients, but it also provides an opportunity to recruit and retain providers in our communities and keep them here,” she reasoned, noting that “giving staff flexibility as to their schedules and where they’re working” is something that’s the medical community demands these days.

There’s also another big change that the Munson Physician Network has embraced to combat local capacity and access issues: a virtual urgent care program aimed at getting patients seen more quickly when they can’t wait for a primary care appointment or a new patient intake process.

A patient can call a virtual urgent care number, speak with a nurse, and if their situation qualifies, they can be “be connected immediately with the provider that we have available and can access initial care that way.”

“We do, as part of that process, ask if that patient has a primary care provider, because we always want to advocate for people to have an established primary care provider relationship,” Smith said. “A primary care relationship is important because it helps not only with illnesses but also with prevention and overall wellness.

“But if a patient does need immediate care, and it’s appropriate for our virtual urgent care program, we’ll see them and make sure that their information gets to their primary care physician for follow up.”

Unfortunately, though, Traverse City’s problems with healthcare access might not be easy to solve – especially since the shortage of primary care physicians isn’t just a local problem. According to an American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) study from 2019, the United States as a whole is expected to face a shortage of “between 21,100 and 55,200” primary care physicians by 2032.