By Martin Kidston
When Mary Jane Nealon first arrived at Partnership Health Center in Missoula, the facility was viewed as a free clinic serving middle-aged adults at the lower end of the income spectrum. It’s operating budget was a few million dollars and its services were somewhat limited.
But with an $8 million renovation now complete and a new medical residency program firmly in place, the center’s image as a free clinic serving the poor is a thing of the past.
Partnership’s operating budget now stands at $22 million and its staff of 45 physicians saw more than 15,000 unique patients last year for a combined 60,000 visits. It’s pharmacy prescribed 90,000 medications in 2015, making it one of Montana’s largest.
“I don’t know that our patient population is driving the growth as much as opportunity,” Nealon said. “The family residency program was a huge opportunity for us because, in the past, we had providers who didn’t want to work with children. They were internists or family nurse practitioners focused on adults. What the residency has done is really bring in families.”
The Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana was launched in 2013 under the sponsorship of the University of Montana and in affiliation with the University of Washington. The first class of 10 doctors matriculated this year and five stayed in Montana.
Each of the program’s 24 residents spend a portion of their three-year residency at Partnership before moving on to other tracks. The program has helped the clinic expand its list of clients and reach a wider segment of the population in western Montana.
“We’re a family practice site, but for a long time, we were really heavy on middle-aged adults,” said Nealon. “Now we have a broader spectrum, and some of that is the residency, so that’s a really nice piece for us.”
In recent years, Partnership also has expanded its services, from management of chronic pain to depression. Along with diabetes and lung disease, depression stands among the clinic’s top diagnoses.
To treat depression, Partnership recently launched the Impact Program, using what Nealon described as an evidence-based model for treatment. While the goal was to treat 600 patients over the first year, the clinic has surpassed that figure, treating 1,380 people with 62 percent of them showing improvements.
It also offers obstetrics and prenatal care, though doing so wasn’t always on the clinic’s list of goals.
“A lot of our OB patients have been high risk, so it’s been a huge benefit to our community,” said Nealon.
The new clinic, located in Missoula’s old Creamery Building off Railroad Street, opened after an extensive renovation and expansion in 2013. Partnership invested $1 million from its own reserves to complete the project. It also received a $5.5 million federal grant as part of the Affordable Care Act.
The work has help reshape the clinic’s reputation and the facility has given it greater visibility.
“We got the capital grant that allowed us to build the facility and we found that basically, if we provide access, people come,” said Jody Faircloth, the center’s health information technology director. “It’s one of those things, if we can make appointments available and providers available, patients come.”
Partnership saw 15,362 patients last year – a figure that has grown to 17,444 patients so far this year. That growth includes 1,500 patents at Partnership’s new clinic in Superior, which opened this July, and 2,400 patients at the clinic in Seeley Lake.
Despite the growth, Nealon believes a large segment of the Missoula population is still unaware of partnership’s services. The clinic is working to reinforce the need for preventative care among segments of the population, including those who may not have insurance.
“It’s pretty classic that when people don’t have insurance, they don’t access care in a preventative way,” said Nealon. “We had a week where we had three Stage 4 cancers diagnosed in a single week. Changing the culture and having people see us, where they can come in once or twice a year, get a simple medication to manage their blood pressure and maybe avoid a heart-failure diagnosis, is something we’re trying to do.”
Partnership also has completed a new strategic plan that looks to better promote is list of services in hopes of reaching more underserved patients. It’s also looking to become an employer of choice by reinvesting in its doctors, nurses and staff members.
“One thing that’s true across the country for community health centers is, it’s really hard to keep staff,” said Nealon. “We can’t compete with private industry. In fact, the feds put a limit on upper management and providers and how high their salaries can go. One of our big strategic plans is to put some value back into the people doing the service.”
There’s also an IT component. Faircloth said Partnership and other other local providers are looking to better share patients’ health information through a new exchange.
“We want to be part of something like that,” said Faircloth. “If they’re getting their primary care here and end up in the emergency room at St. Patrick Hospital for some reason, they can pull their information about labs, allergies and medications.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org