Improving access to rural medicine in Colorado

UCHealth physicians travel to Lamar to provide service and caring.
December 26th, 2017

LAMAR, Colo. – The month of June wasn’t a good one for Judith Bailey.

Judith Bailey, right, who is being treated for breast cancer at the Prowers Medical Center, says the doctors who come to Lamar are “a godsend.’’
Judith Bailey, right, who is being treated for breast cancer at the Prowers Medical Center, says the doctors who come to Lamar are “a godsend.’’

On the seventh day, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; on the 10th she developed Bell’s Palsy and on the 30th, she fell over her dog and broke her shoulder.

It’s been a blessing to Bailey that she has been able to receive her care in rural Lamar where she lives with husband, Bruce, who works in the produce department at a local grocery store.

In rural America, many people face barriers to care. The Denver Post recently reported that fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s physicians practice in a rural area — even though such areas hold 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Rural medicine in Colorado

In Colorado, there are 13 counties — all rural — that do not have a hospital, including two without even a clinic. Two counties, including Crowley, don’t have a single doctor, according to the Post.

In Lamar, the town is blessed with many good providers and specialists from UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs. Each month, specialists set up in the Outpatient Specialty Clinic at the Prowers Medical Center to see patients with a variety of illnesses and medical conditions.

This is a photo of Dr. Michelle DeWing, who provides rural medicine in Colorado.
Dr. Michelle DeWing

After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Bailey, 70, began receiving care from Dr. Michelle DeWing, a UCHealth breast surgeon and one of several doctors who travel to the town of 7,800 people to provide expert breast cancer, oncology, cardiology and radiology care.

Bailey has recently seen DeWing and Dr. Robert Hoyer, an oncologist, to help her battle what has been diagnosed as a fast-moving, but curable cancer in her breast. Dr. Uchenna Njiaju, a medical oncologist and hematologist, sees patients in Woodland Park; and Dr. Vishal Rana, also a hematologist and oncologist, see patients in Hugo, Colorado, a small community southwest of Limon, Colorado. An outreach clinic in Burlington is scheduled to open soon. Cardiologist Dr. George Gustafson sees heart patients in Lamar, and Dr. Scott Hurlbert, a vascular surgeon, sees patients who have vascular issues.

This is a photo of Dr. Robert Hoyer, who provides rural medicine in Colorado.
Dr. Robert Hoyer
This is a photo of Dr. Uchenna Nijiaju, who provides rural medicine in Colorado.
Dr. Uchenna Njiaju
This is a photo of Dr. George Gustafson, who provides rural medicine in Colorado.
Dr. George Gustafson

“These people are fabulous and to have them spend their time here and to come down here is a godsend,’’ Bailey said of the physicians.

Like many in rural America, having to make a 320-mile round trip from Lamar to Colorado Springs to see a doctor is a financial hardship that would require Bailey’s husband to take a day off work and lose a day’s wages.

This is a photo of Lisa Adams, who provides rural medicine in Colorado.
Lisa Adams

Dr. DeWing flies to Lamar with a medical assistant, Lisa Padilla, on the second Monday of every month.  Hoyer and Lisa Adams, a physician’s assistant, travel to Lamar on the fourth Thursday and Friday of every month.

“The people of Lamar are very appreciative of the specialty care that we are providing. We can provide pre-ops, post-ops and follow-up appointments for breast patients,’’ DeWing said. “People work very hard here, and they’re very grateful to have the resources. It provides a lot of different options for patients.’’

This is a photo of Margaret Loewen, who provides rural medicine in Colorado.
Margaret Loewen

Dr. Margaret Loewen, the town’s only emergency room doctors who also has a primary care practice, often refers patients to specialists and two years ago, when Dr. Loewen was diagnosed with breast cancer herself, she turned to Dr. DeWing for help.

Continuum of care

When she went to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs for a procedure, the radiologist who had treated her in Lamar also treated her in Colorado Springs, providing “seamless continuity of care,’’ Dr. Loewen said.

“The specialty clinic supplements what we are able to do,’’ Dr. Loewen said. “We love them here.’’

The Prowers Medical Center is a medical hub in a five-county area in the Arkansas Valley, and it is a Top 100 Critical Access Hospital, a designation given to rural hospitals by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reduce the financial vulnerability of rural hospitals and improve access to health care by keeping medical care in rural communities.

In Lamar, a breast cancer patient can have a mammogram at the hospital, have the image read by a breast-certified radiologist and receive care from the specialist.

“I don’t think women understand what a horrible disease breast cancer is,’’ Dr. Loewen said. “I hear a lot of people say that they’ll ‘let nature take its course,’ but nature is not so kind and it is a horrible disease and if not treated, will end in death.’’

Dr. Hoyer said he enjoys practicing in Lamar.

“The clinic we’ve created in Lamar is identical to the clinic here. Patients get the same treatment. Since a round-trip would take five to six hours, we’re trying to make access to rural medicine in Colorado easier for patients and families,’’ Hoyer said.

In recent months, Prowers Medical Center, which is accredited by DNV GL for meeting or exceeding safety standards, has made numerous medical advances. The medical center has new operating rooms, an infusion therapy room and offers more than a dozen specialty clinics in Lamar.

“I really commend the Prowers Medical Center for doing oncology infusion – it’s a huge benefit for patients,’’ he said. “They have put the patients first – that’s what I have observed there. It’s been really fun and it’s been great getting to know the patients and their families. It’s been great to practice rural medicine and a wonderful opportunity to work with the staff there.’’

The Outpatient Specialty Clinic is located at the Prowers Medical Center on the hospital campus at 301 Kendall Drive, Lamar, Colorado. For more information, call the clinic at 719.336.7005.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.