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Choosing Springfield
Recruiters say the Capital City has a lot to offer to medical professionals
By Theresa Schieffer

The Land of Lincoln's capital city represents the land of opportunity for some medical professionals, drawing them from near and far to pursue their careers in Springfield.

Local physician recruiters agree that one of the reasons they are able to successfully compete against larger metropolitan areas is that Springfield can often put physicians on the fast track to advancement.

Because Southern Illinois University School of Medicine is relatively young, observing its 40th anniversary this year, it can offer physicians the opportunity to "build something from the ground up," due to the fact that it has departments and divisions that are still developing new programs in need of leadership, according to Tanni Loveless, administrator for the department of pediatrics. "People can come here and be a division director a lot sooner than they could in the larger academic setting, where they are the junior partner for many, many years."

A case in point is Dr. Ramzi Nicolas. He became director of pediatric cardiology for St. John's Children's Hospital, a joint effort of SIU and St. John's Hospital, immediately after completing fellowship training at St. Louis Children's Hospital, Washington University, in 2005.

"It was an opportunity for me because if you're a fresh graduate, you can never be a division director in a bigger city, because there are more experienced people ahead of you," said Nicolas, who completed medical school in his native Lebanon and a pediatric residency in Syracuse, N.Y.  He was aware of the need for a specialist in pediatric and fetal cardiology in Springfield because, while undergoing training in St. Louis, he made trips here with another physician to offer a monthly clinic.

"This was a challenge to me to come and start a practice and see what difference I could make in this community and to be my own boss and start something that was not existing," Nicolas said.

Career opportunity was not the only consideration that factored into Nicolas' decision to relocate to Springfield. "Compared to St. Louis, the crime rate is lower, and the cost of living is much more affordable here. To raise a family in Springfield, I find very relaxing and very rewarding," said Nicolas, the father of two sons.

The opportunity to serve as lead hospitalist for the new program at St. John's Hospital was the impetus for Dr. Tommy Ibrahim to relocate to Springfield from Baltimore with his wife and son.

"Without a doubt, I knew that Springfield was the right place to propel my career forward, all while providing the very best for our very young family," said Ibrahim, who assumed his duties here in August.

Springfield appeals to him personally because it is welcoming, friendly and relaxing, and professionally because of its "robust, resourceful and ever-expanding medical district."

Dr. Richard Rolston already had many years of experience in leadership positions when he relocated to Springfield from Green Bay, Wis., in January 2009 to serve as president and CEO of Hospital Sisters Health System Medical Group. He had previously served in the same capacity for health-care systems in Green Bay and Albuquerque, N.M.

What primarily attracted Dr. Rolston to Springfield was the opportunity to share his expertise in integrated health systems by helping HSHS develop one. He explained that in an integrated system, "all patient services are kind of under the same tent. I personally think that's the best way to deliver health care for patients."

Prior to his arrival, St. John's Hospital and physicians "had a traditional relationship," he said. "Doctors in the community would have admitting privileges to the hospital, but they weren't part of the decision-making."

Noting that he is "a doctor first," Rolston, who is observing his 20th year as a physician, continues to maintain a pediatric practice. He spends a couple of days a week at St. John's Family Health Center in Rochester.

"What makes Springfield a great community for me to practice in is the devotion to family and a strong culture about family and taking care of them," he said. "It's a Midwest kind of culture that makes this a great place to practice."

Rolston and his wife also found Springfield appealing as a place to live because "there is a lot of community pride. It's a very pretty community with a lot of history as well. It's a great fit for us all around."

Local physician recruiters find that most of the medical professionals they have recruited have been influenced by several factors when choosing to practice in Springfield.

"We have recruited several physicians from large metropolitan areas - Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Los Angeles, St. Louis, to name a few," said Kelly Ford, director of medical staff affairs for Hospital Sisters Health System. "I believe many are seeking a more stable environment to practice quality medicine and a safe community to raise a family.

"The Springfield area has many advantages, especially the people. They are hard-working. They are honest and have a strong sense of community. Springfield offers reasonable housing costs, strong school systems, top-notch health care and many of the amenities of a large metropolitan area without the headaches ... It offers a nice work/life balance that physicians are seeking."

To anyone who subscribes to the notion that big cities are nice places to visit but not to live, Springfield is appealing because of the quality of life it affords combined with its proximity to Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis, along with their major airports, according to Travis Dowell, vice president for Memorial Physician Services, which is affiliated with Memorial Health System, operator of Memorial Medical Center.

Dowell and other physician recruiters know that proximity to family is another reason some physicians choose Springfield. That is the case with Rushville native Dr. Amy High, who was recruited by Dowell to practice obstetrics/gynecology at Memorial's Women's Healthcare after completing residency training at SIU School of Medicine in June.

"I wanted to be somewhere where my kids could be around family," said High, who now lives in Riverton with her husband and children. "I told them when we came here they wouldn't have to move anywhere else. I like the size of the Springfield area. I have never been a city girl. I have no desire to live in a big city."

From a professional standpoint, High likes practicing medicine in Springfield because "nearly every specialty is represented in this town. I have everything I need in terms of referral. It's a nice opportunity we have here to take care of patients in this town."

The Springfield medical community actually gained two physicians with the successful recruitment of High. Her husband, Dr. Eric High, is in the last year of his surgery residency at the SIU medical school and will pursue his career here after completing a fellowship elsewhere.

The fact that Springfield has a medical school is an advantage to physician recruiters, according to Dowell. "We are blessed to have this available to us in Springfield and central Illinois," he said. "A lot of areas in the nation do not have a residency program to recruit from that's in their backyard."

Having a medical school is also an advantage in that it attracts physicians who want to teach and do research as well as practice medicine. For example, in addition to his clinical role at St. John's Children's Hospital, Nicolas serves as an assistant professor in pediatrics at SIU School of Medicine.

The nature of the relationship among Springfield's hospitals and medical school is a plus in recruitment efforts, according to Sara Schumacher, administrator for the department of surgery for SIU School of Medicine. She said that professional staff at the institutions work well together, which is not the case in all communities with multiple hospitals and a medical school.

Sometimes, it's not what Springfield has but what it doesn't have that can help to seal the deal. "One of the comments I always get when they come here in the early morning is, 'I just experienced your rush hour, and it's really not a rush hour,'" said SIU's Loveless. "They recognize the value of not spending that much time on the road."

When negotiating with job candidates, local physician recruiters might sweeten the pot by offering incentives, which they say is common practice in the industry. Incentives can range from sign-on bonuses to loan forgiveness to moving expenses. "We are creative with incentives to attract physicians," Ford said.

However, it is not necessary to "offer exorbitant amounts just because of where we're located" in order to lure physicians, Schumacher said. Salaries offered are based on national surveys, Loveless said.

On average, the recruitment of a new provider takes anywhere from seven to 12 months.  Ford said the timeline might be extended in cases of "difficult-to-recruit" specialists and medical professionals who have not yet completed training.

 

Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )

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