“The United States is experiencing significant shortages of primary care providers… Demand exceeds supply,” notes a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Adirondacks are not immune to that trend. Far from it. So, not surprisingly, Hudson Headwaters Health Network, which operates 21 health centers from Warren County to the Canadian border, has taken advantage of an opportunity to share six residents with Saratoga Hospital.
The recent medical school graduates, members of the inaugural Saratoga Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program, will train at Hudson Headwaters’ Ticonderoga Health Center as well as at Saratoga Hospital’s facilities in Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls. At the Ticonderoga Health Center, the rural health care curriculum is led by Dr. Kristen Mack.
“Our faculty look forward to collaborating with this class to develop a model for 21st-century family medicine education.” said Dr. Ephraim Back, chief of clinical initiatives at Hudson Headwaters Health Network and director of the Saratoga Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program.
Since their arrival in early July “the residents have begun to familiarize themselves with Hudson Headwaters and other health centers in the region,” said Pam Fisher, Director of Community Relations at Hudson Headwaters. “This has been an exciting month.”
“It’s great to have them here,” said Dr. Suzanne Bergin, Associate Chief Medical Officer of the Hudson Headwaters Health Network.
Eighteen residents will have participated in the program by 2025, which may help the Adirondacks address its long-term, primary care deficit.
According to Jenny Leznyk, the Director of Hudson Headwaters’ Physician & Provider Recruitment & Retention, roughly 80% of physicians remain in the regions or communities where they completed their residencies.
“Rural areas are among the places facing the greatest challenges recruiting primary care providers,” said Suzanne Bergin.
Recruiting Primary Care Physicians
According to Pam Fisher, “provider recruitment is a major topic of concern.”
While most facilities serving rural and inner-city areas depend upon federal and state incentives and subsidies to attract physicians, Hudson Headwaters has established a unique program of its own: “The Hudson Headwaters Health Network Medical Student Tuition Assistance Program.”
“We definitely utilize those federal and state loan forgiveness programs, but the challenge of recruiting physicians to our region requires that we leave no stone unturned,” said Jenny Leznyk, the Physician & Provider Recruitment & Retention director.
Rather than waiting for government funding, “We prioritized getting this program up and running,” said Dr. Bergin, who also serves as Hudson Headwaters’ clinical lead for recruitment efforts.
Leznyk and Dr. Bergin are the two individuals most responsible for creating the Hudson Headwaters Health Network Medical Student Tuition Assistance Program, said Pam Fisher.
According Fisher, “Dr. Bergen and Ms. Leznyk have worked tirelessly to engage medical students, residents and providers to work and live in the Adirondacks, spearheading many initiatives for Hudson Headwaters, including the Tuition Assistance Program.
Tuition Assistance in Exchange for a Four-Year Commitment
Medical students admitted to the Tuition Assistance program will be awarded full, two-year scholarships in return for a commitment to serve Hudson Headwaters’ patients for four years after completing their residency programs.
“We hope to identify students in their third and fourth years of medical school,” said Bergin. “We’ll ask them at that point in their training if they are interested in committing to practicing primary care in a rural setting. In exchange, we will pay a good chunk of the tuition for their third and fourth years,” said Dr. Bergin.
Bergin and Leznyk are now actively seeking candidates for the program’s first cohort.
With a price tag of $130,000 per student, the number of candidates admitted the program every year will be limited.
Anyone who wishes to donate funds to help subsidize the Tuition Assistance Program should contact Hudson Headwaters’ Development office, said Pam Fisher.
Drawn to the Adirondacks
The best candidate for Hudson Headwaters’ tuition assistance program will be someone not only interested in primary care, but someone drawn to Adirondacks.
“I imagine we’ll find someone passionate about the Adirondacks who happens to be in medicine, someone who grew up here or who has fond memories of childhood visits, someone who loves the outdoor activities that can be found here,” said Bergin.
Dr. Daniel Farrell, who joined Hudson Headwaters in 2022 and who practices medicine in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, said he wishes the program had existed when he was in medical school.
“I wouldn’t have as much student loan debt,” he said.
Farrell and his fiancé, Dr. Jennifer Rutz, are precisely the kind of physicians that Hudson Headwaters’ recruitment programs are designed to reach.
Farrell first came to the Adirondacks as an undergraduate at Boson College to ski and work at Whiteface Mountain. He returned to research the state of health care in the Adirondacks and met the founder of Hudson Headwaters, Dr. John Rugge.
“I always had this area in mind as a place to practice,” said Farrell.
According to Dr. Bergin, who said she herself had always envisioned herself practicing medicine in the Adirondacks, Farrell is not atypical.
“The love of the outdoors – hiking, skiing – certainly ranks high among those who choose to practice here,” said Bergin.
Through the Tuition Assistance Program “we’re looking for the next John Rugge – who came to the Adirondacks for the white-water canoeing and stayed – or the next Dan Farrell,” said Bergin.
Hudson Headwaters is Expanding
Hudson Headwaters is actively recruiting physicians not only because the need for primary care providers remains consistent, but because the network has grown to include 21 health centers, responsible for more than 100,000 patients from Saratoga County to the Canadian border. Hours of operations at some centers have also expanded to include evenings and weekends.
According to Jenny Leznyk, Hudson Headwaters now recruits roughly 25 new providers every year to fill a variety of positions.
“Some positions become vacant because of resignations and retirements, but not many,” said Leznyk, who noted that Hudson Headwaters has a history of retaining its recruits. “The majority of hires over the last couple years have been the result of our expansion.”
The protocols followed by Hudson Headwaters when recruiting practitioners will be used when considering candidates for its tuition program, Leznyk said.
“Historically, Hudson Headwaters has done a good job introducing candidates to our teams and health centers and making certain we are a good fit for each other. Our selection process for this program will be no different,” said Leznyk.
To apply, visit hhhn.org/about/education.