Despite nationwide provider shortage, MyMichigan Health remains committed to Sault community


That’s how many healthcare providers dropped out of the workforce in 2021, according to Definitive Healthcare data. The specialties that saw the greatest decline included Internal Medicine and Family Practice.

3.2 million.

That’s the projected shortage of healthcare workers America will face by 2026, according to the American Hospital Association. This shortage comes as a multitude of variables collide – a large percentage of healthcare professionals reaching retirement age, an increased demand for healthcare professionals due to an aging population, and provider burnout in the wake of the pandemic, among others.

Unfortunately, these numbers are already being felt in communities across Michigan, which is one of the five states experiencing the most critical staffing shortages among healthcare workers. MyMichigan Medical Center Sault is no exception. However, the facility has a message for local residents who are experiencing the impact of those staffing shortages firsthand and may be feeling concerned about the future of healthcare in their community: MyMichigan Medical Center Sault remains committed to serving Sault Ste. Marie and the Upper Peninsula community.
“Getting on the books is step one to making sure you have patient-provider privilege with someone,” says Kalchik.In fact, the commitment of MyMichigan Health to rural communities was one of the factors that played into the decision for the formerly known War Memorial Hospital to affiliate with MyMichigan Health, which became official in early 2022.

“Some of the other organizations we considered affiliating with seemed to be more primarily focused on finances and not necessarily what the community needed,” says Kevin Kalchik, President of MyMichigan Medical Center Sault. “Coming out of COVID, there's a lot of uncertainty. So, as we go forward with having the services that are important to us, the financial backing of a strong organization – and an organization that has shown its commitment to rural communities – is critical. At a time when other hospitals were closing down vital services due to poor reimbursement – such as behavioral health or maternity --we saw MyMichigan was retaining and even expanding those services. That was an important factor in our decision to join MyMichigan.”

Three of the many ways MyMichigan Health is showing the Sault its commitment to the health of local residents include: ensuring residents have access to the services they need to keep their care close to home, supporting providers who are already in the community, and recruiting new providers to the community.

The first facet of that is ensuring the community has access to healthcare services and specialties they need in order to keep their care close to home; however, sometimes these services – such as a 24/7 Emergency Department and Obstetrics & Gynecology Department – are easily taken for granted.

“The closest place you can deliver a baby – aside from here – would be Alpena, Petoskey, or Marquette. We offer dialysis, behavioral health, pulmonology, urology, orthopedics, and general surgery, to name a few” says Kalchik. “The closest hospital to our west is about an hour away in Newberry, and the next closest is 45-50 minutes south of us, which is Mackinac Straits – and we have higher capabilities of services than both of those.”

In order to continue offering those services, MyMichigan Health is working with healthcare workers already in the community to encourage them to stay. An example of this can be seen with local primary care providers; several years ago, what was then known as War Memorial Hospital began onboarding local primary care providers in an attempt to keep them practicing in the community longer and to partner in the recruitment process.

“About five years ago, we recognized that several local independent primary care providers were approaching retirement and were struggling to recruit other physicians to take over their practices,” says Kalchik. “We wanted to respect and honor their commitment to our community, not compete against them, so we worked with them to come join us so that they could transition into retirement when they were ready, and we could try to recruit more successfully with them at an organizational level.”

333,942 healthcare providers dropped out of the workforce in 2021, according to Definitive Healthcare Data.One of those doctors who transitioned into an employed position at the hospital is Dr. Timothy O’Connor, M.D., Hospital Medicine Physician at MyMichigan Medical Center Sault.

“One of the main reasons why I wanted to transition was the business side of things,” says O’Connor. “Staffing was a big issue. It was getting more and more difficult to find key personnel and that made it very difficult to remain in private practice.”

O’Connor says another aspect that was becoming more challenging as a private practice doctor was Medicare billing. The hospital helped him navigate that challenge, even before he transitioned into an employed position, and helped him in a few other business-related areas as well during his time as a private practice physician. 

“We really established a pattern of trust where they had helped me out when they really didn't have to. They took their time and effort to help me in my private practice because it's good for the community to have doctors around. So, it did serve the hospital; but I really felt as though we established a good relationship solving some of those issues together,” O’Connor says. “The more we worked together, the more comfortable I became with the concept of being employed by the hospital.”

He adds that had the hospital not supported him with an employed position, it is likely that he may have retired altogether. 

“I was talking to Kevin, and I mentioned to him that I thought I’d had enough and would just retire, and he said, ‘Hold on. Let's talk about that. Maybe we can work something else out because we don't want to lose physicians. It's very hard to replace physicians in this community.’”

O’Connor says he believes it’s good for the community that MyMichigan Medical Center Sault is continuing to employ physicians since that seems to be the route more new graduates prefer to take.

“It seems to be an appealing thing because more new providers are choosing employed positions rather than going into private practice,” he says.

“Last year, we onboarded primary care providers at many of our hospitals across the state,” says Kalchik. “So, we would expect that in another few years, the Sault will be in the same situation.”Kalchik confirms that several other initiatives are also underway to enhance provider well-being and retention. These include adding a night-time position for advanced practice providers in the hospital medicine program, which ensures that a provider is always on-site to respond to the highest acuity needs; plus an outpatient call schedule shared by all local primary care providers to make after-hours call less burdensome and stressful.

That leads to a third aspect of MyMichigan Health’s commitment to local residents: recruiting more healthcare professionals to Sault Ste. Marie. This is a long-term goal, though. Recruiting professionals – in any field – to rural communities has historically been a challenge.

“One of the attractions of the affiliation was to join an organization that has connections,” says Kalchik. “We have seen those connections give a recruiting boost to the other hospitals in our system, but it didn’t happen overnight. Although 2023 was a great recruiting year -- we onboarded primary care providers at most of our hospitals across the state -- that’s due largely to strategies that MyMichigan put in place several years ago that are now paying off. For example, we added a second residency program in Alma and a rural medicine track in Alpena, and many graduates of those programs are now practicing in our health system. We’ll be adding similar programs in the Sault, so we would expect that in another few years, we’ll start to see some outcomes from those investments.”

While MyMichigan Health works to recruit more healthcare workers to Sault Ste. Marie, there are two main things that residents can do to help their access to care: accept care from Nurse Practitioners and Physicians Assistants, and be proactive. 

Not every state allows advanced practice providers – such as Nurse Practitioners and Physicians Assistants – to practice at the top of their license. Doing so enables Michiganders to receive much-needed medical attention.

“We need to start shifting the public's mindset so that they welcome and accept these providers rather than thinking that only an M.D. can meet their needs,” says Kalchik. “We are lucky to have many experienced and dedicated advanced practice providers on our team, and patients who have established a good rapport with those providers are delighted with their care.”

Local residents should also take action to be proactive when it comes to their health. For example, don’t wait until your prescription is empty to call for a refill. If you’re really sick, don’t wait until the last minute to call for an appointment – the sooner you call, the sooner you can get in. Most importantly, though, get established with a primary care provider. 

“We understand the wait for a new patient appointment can be long right now – that is true anywhere in the nation; however, getting that appointment on the books as soon as possible is the first step to establish patient-provider privilege, which is key to the rest of your care. In the meantime, we are working to help ensure the community receives the medical attention it needs,” says Kalchik. “We are bringing providers to the Sault two or three days a week to care for those patients whose doctors have left. We have a Walk-In Clinic. We have EZCare. We have a 24/7 emergency department for more serious concerns. We’re lucky to have all these resources in our community and most of all a team of dedicated providers and staff who are stepping up to fill the needs.”

While leadership at MyMichigan Medical Center Sault understands that staffing shortages and waiting for appointments can be frustrating, at the end of the day, one thing remains true, says Kalchik. It was true 100 years ago when War Memorial Hospital was founded; it was true a year and a half ago when the facility changed its name to MyMichigan Medical Center Sault; and it is true today. 

“We're part of your community and we care about you,” says Kalchik. “We are honored to be chosen to take care of you and your family members.”

Gabrielle "Gabe" Haiderer is passionate about sharing stories that show the positive interactions between individuals and businesses that occur every day in our communities -- interactions that inspire hope and motivate community growth. She has used this passion to share stories through a variety of media outlets -- from television to radio to traditional newspaper to digital news. When she's not writing, Gabe stays busy running her own videography and social media management business in Northern Michigan, caring for her two furkids (Watson the Siamese cat and Holmes the Corgi), spending time with her husband, and tending her garden.
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