(Riverton, Wyo.) – The Riverton Medical Community has been hit with what has been called a “perfect storm” with established physicians leaving the community. The departures were unexpected, but has created a vacuum for primary care physicians.

Perhaps the hardest hit was Western Family Care in Riverton with two of their physicians leaving the community and a third preparing an independent practice. Dr. Mike Miller left for Portland, Oregon to run a hospice center there and Dr. Mona Waheed left to join her husband in Chicago. A third physician there, Dr. Joy Magruder, is believed to be setting up an independent practice.

At the Wind River Internal Medicine Clinic, Dr. Richard Sorenson is preparing to leave for two years in New Zealand come early Janaury.

“This certainly has created a big hole in the community for the next four to six months,” said Riverton Memorial Hospital Board of Directors Chairman Dr. Roger Gose, who himself retired, albeit several years ago. “I think these are the most challenging times as we’ve had in Riverton in the last 37 years since I’ve been here,” he told County10.com. The other previous challenge occurred when Fremont County went through several years of litigation in removing the Lutheran Homes and Hospitals administration of the two local hospitals. “That was when I first got here,” Gose said.

Gose, and the administrator of both the Lander Regional and Riverton Memorial hospitals, Steve Erixon, said several weeks ago that physical recruitment is something that you have to be ahead of the curve on. “It just doesn’t happen overnight,” Erixon said. “It sometimes takes several years to get someone to come to our area.”

Gose did say however that there is some relief coming. “We have some people lined up, a husband and wife team, that will be coming in the spring to Dr. Mercer’s group. And in January we’re getting a new general surgeon at the hospital who is coming over from Afton, and a new hospitalist is coming up from Cheyenne.”

The Lander clinic has been seeing more patients from Riverton (EO)

The Lander clinic has been seeing more patients from Riverton (EO)

At Western Family Care, Mary Margaret Stockton said they are looking to Lander to get help for their lone remaining family physician, Dr. Eric Ridgway. “We’re actively recruiting physicians right now, and the Lander Medical Clinic is sending over some providers to help us out.” The two clinics are looking at a more formal arrangement, and patients now checking in at Western Family Care are being asked to resubmit their personal information on Lander Medical Clinic forms. The formal arrangement has not been finalized yet.

The Lander Clinic’s CEO, Ryan Hedges, confirmed what Stockton had reported. “We’re working on a deal, but it’s not closed yet. In the interim, we’re sending some people over there to help Dr. Ridgway.” Hedges said his clinic is fully staffed and “quite a few” folks from Riverton have been coming over since getting an appointment in Riverton is becoming increasingly difficult.

An interim solution may be establishment of an urgent care center, which is under consideration by the two hospitals. “We met yesterday about that, it would not take cases that should go to the emergency room, for instance, but things like acute sinusitis,” Gose said. “We have to meet the needs.”

Meanwhile at the Wind River Internal Medicine Group, Gose’s former clinic, Dr. Richard Jones and Dr. John Reckling will be picking up the slack when Dr. Sorenson leaves next month. “Some flexibility has been lost there due to larger patient loads for them. We’re pedaling as fast as we can but the squeeze will be on for the near future.”

Erixon noted that one of the difficulties in recruiting to a community such as Fremont County are the economics. He said new doctors coming out of medical school are faced with huge student loan bills and are looking to retire that debt as soon as they can.

“The economics are not here,” Gose said. “More physicians are into specialties where it’s more lucrative. It presents us with a unique challenge.”

In Riverton, there is an alternative, and that is the Fremont Community Health Center that takes all comers regardless of their ability to pay. “It’s a safety net and I’m happy they are there, but we still need good primary care doctors,” Gose said. The Community Health Center is staffed with one physician and one physician’s assistant.