WILLMAR -- When Dr. Bruce Keppen, a pain medicine specialist, joined Affiliated Community Medical Centers this month, his schedule filled rapidly.
The specialty was one for which ACMC actively recruited for several months.
"There was a huge need," said Kari Bredberg, a physician recruiter for the regional multispecialty health network.
ACMC was bringing in outreach physicians to meet patient demand "but now we're able to have somebody full time," she said.
The past two years have been banner years locally for physician recruitment.
In 2011 alone, ACMC-Willmar added a pediatrician, a medical oncologist, a dermatologist, a pain specialist and two family medicine doctors, one of whom specializes in sleep medicine.
Eleven other doctors joined the group in 2009 and 2010.
New doctors also joined ACMC at its clinics in Marshall and elsewhere, and Family Practice Medical Center brought a new family medicine doctor on board in 2010.
Three years ago, it was often a struggle to find and hire the right candidates, particularly in hard-to-fill specialties such as orthopedic surgery.
The situation has noticeably changed. "We've been quite successful in the last couple of years in adding people," said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of ACMC. "We're putting a lot of effort into it."
Now at nine doctors on staff, Family Practice Medical Center is well-positioned to meet patient needs, said Gary McDowell, clinic administrator.
"We're looking," he said. "We'd probably go to 10. We've got space in our facility to do that. But it's not essential. The physicians are very comfortable with the size they're at."
Another measure of the success in recruiting: Rice Memorial Hospital spent more than $275,000 this year in physician recruitment support for the local clinics, mainly in signing bonuses. Hospital officials said this is the largest amount in several years -- and they've budgeted the same for 2012.
Local providers point to several factors in the current healthy state of physician recruitment. For one thing, hiring has slowed at many urban and suburban practices, encouraging more doctors to consider rural careers instead. For another, the economy is causing some older doctors to delay retirement.
But the foremost ingredient in the successes of the past two years is the effort being invested in bringing qualified doctors to town, Holmgren said. "I think the biggest thing is we really do prioritize this as important."
"We're recruiting all the time," Schramm said. "We spend a lot of time with candidates. That's just the time we have to put in to make sure we're successful."
One strategy that's paying off is connecting with medical students while they're still in training. For instance, ACMC's Affiliated Community Health Foundation offers scholarships to students in medicine and other health professions.
Thirty-three scholarships were awarded this year to students from ACMC's service area, Holmgren said. "We identify students that are in medical school and offer a scholarship program for them. We keep in contact with them."
Hosting medical students for clinical training rotations is another recruitment tool, he said.
So is an emphasis on candidates who are a good fit in rural Minnesota, he said. "We look very much for someone who has some sort of connection to the area, whether it's a spouse or they grew up here."
Networking and word of mouth are important for Family Practice Medical Center, McDowell said. "There really isn't one particular way that we go about it."
The practice has fewer recruitment stresses than large multispecialty organizations do. Nevertheless, it can take two to three years to find the right person, McDowell said. "We focus on finding a good match. ... We always are recruiting. It seems like when we've needed a physician, we've been able to find and attract one."
Local providers aren't just competing with the Twin Cities for candidates, Bredberg said. "We compete with the United States. The challenges are still out there of recruiting to rural Minnesota. You can't change the weather. You can't change the location."
The recruitment message has become one of "big-city medicine with the benefits of living in a smaller location," she said. "We're looking for people long-term who become vested in the community. We want it to be a good fit for everybody."
All in all, this approach has brought several needed specialists to town -- a nephrologist, a medical oncologist, an orthopedic surgeon, an ophthalmologist, a psychologist, an urgent care physician. The hospitalist program, a cooperative venture with Rice Hospital, is now up to four full-time doctors in hospital medicine. At a time when many rural communities are struggling to find primary care doctors, Willmar has added six in the past two years -- five at ACMC and one at Family Practice Medical Center.
The pace will likely slow in 2012, Holmgren said, noting that ups and downs in physician recruitment tend to be cyclical.
But the work isn't over. Efforts are ongoing to find another orthopedic surgeon, preferably more than one. ACMC is seeking a specialist in infectious disease. Retaining the doctors who are already here is also important, Holmgren said.
Having the right number and mix of physicians is critical not only for patient care but also for the ability of local health care to grow and stay viable, said Schramm.
"We are as vested in that as the local clinics," he said. "We try to make sure we're planning for and looking at physician manpower needs across the board."
The need to recruit successfully is constant, Bredberg said. "We feel fortunate to be positioned well to be able to continue recruiting. We've been pretty aggressive in our efforts at trying to fill the needs of the community and they've paid off."