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Physician assistants bandage shortage at clinic

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Patients seeking treatment for a sore throat or fever may have noticed the challenge in getting an appointment at the clinic.

"We've had a couple of our providers deployed. We've also lost some contract providers and it's made us short with our provider manning," said Maj. Michelle Montgomery, Family Health Clinic flight commander with the 21st Medical Group.

The 21st MDG's Family Health Clinic has 15 provider (physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners) authorizations, however, due to unforeseen circumstances (deployments, position vacancies and difficulties in hiring contract staff), the clinic has been functioning with only nine to care for more than 15,000 military, retiree and family members in the area.

The Air Force Medical Service's "Patient-Centered Medical Home" clinic management model ideally drives 1,250 patients enrolled per provider -- the 21st MDG has been averaging 1,750 for the past three to four months. "We're doing our best to see all of our patients when they need to be seen. When clinically indicated, we're arranging urgent care appointments with our partner military treatment facilities in the local market or to civilian practices when necessary. Our staffing is projected to get much better in the next two to three months, but until then, we appreciate the understanding of our patients and I cannot thank our provider and support staff enough for all they've done during these tough times," said Col. Michael Burke, 21st MDG commander.

"Our med group commander sent an email to (Air Force Space Command) and explained our manning situation," said Maj. Stephen Mathis, Family Health Clinic general practice manager. "Then AFSPC sent a message out to (the Air Force Personnel Center). Then AFPC sent an email out Air Force wide and asks, does anybody have some manning they could loan Peterson for a period of time."

Two manning assists have come for two months to help pick up the slack: Maj. James Hay, physician's assistant from Holloman AFB, N.M., and Maj. Carol Forrest, physician's assistant from Barksdale AFB, La.

"They're going to help cover the ... providers who are currently still deployed or positions that are vacant," Montgomery said, adding some patients are still enrolled with providers who are deployed or who have PCSd. "We want to give a big thank you to Holloman and Barksdale for allowing their providers to come up and help us out."

Having two extra PAs means an additional 180 appointments can be scheduled a week. "Whenever you are short of providers, you can only have so many appointments," Hay said. "So when a manning assist comes in, like me, you're opening up those appointments again so those patients feel like - OK, they are listening to me."

The doctors, nurses and technicians are working hard to decrease the impact the shortage has on patient care, Montgomery said. "They'll notice it's a bit more difficult to get an appointment. They might find that they're going to be getting referred to a network urgent care center for their acute needs. They may find they have to leave a telephone consult more often than what they would have in the past."

Montgomery said the manning situation will improve in March with the return of two deployed physicians and the hiring of two civilian contractors. Another two active duty providers are set to come on board this summer.

The 21st MDG is the proud recipient of the HQ AFSPC "Ambulatory Clinic of the Year" and the Air Force's "Best Ambulatory Clinic Patient Safety Program" awards. For an appointment, contact the Colorado Springs multi service market appointment line at 524-CARE or 526-CARE, and for the latest 21st MDG updates, join the 21st MDG on Facebook.

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