All in the family: Residency program brings doctors to West Slope

From left, Drs. Christopher Taggart, Andrew Jones and Christopher Meinzen discuss the family medicine residency program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction. Meinzen is among the latest graduates of the program and works as a hospitalist at St. Mary’s. Since 1979, the program has brought about half of primary care physicians to Mesa County. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
From left, Drs. Christopher Taggart, Andrew Jones and Christopher Meinzen discuss the family medicine residency program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction. Meinzen is among the latest graduates of the program and works as a hospitalist at St. Mary’s. Since 1979, the program has brought about half of primary care physicians to Mesa County. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Christopher Meinzen applied to family medicine residency programs across the country, but was accepted to what he says was his first choice — the program offered at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction.

Three years later, Meinzen has started the next phase of his career at St. Mary’s as a hospitalist, a doctor who cares for patients admitted to the facility.

Meinzen says the family medicine residency program brought him to Western Colorado. The training he received and connections he developed convinced him to stay.

It’s a common occurrence. Since the first class graduated in 1979, the program has accounted for about half the primary care physicians practicing in Mesa County.

At a time when there are shortages of doctors, particularly in rural areas, the program plays an important role in not only health care accessibility, but also economic development, says Dr. Andrew Jones, vice president and chief medical officer at St. Mary’s. “It’s a major driver for the health care work force in a whole region.”

Dr. Christopher Taggart, medical director of the family medicine clinic at St. Mary’s, says the program not only trains residents to handle a range of medical issues in a variety of settings, but also provides care for thousands of patients. In 2017, residents cared for a total of 35,000 patients. That number swells to more than 500,000 over the 40 years of the program.

The family medicine residency program at St. Mary’s began in 1977 with four residents beginning their second year of training. Since then, 141 residents and 12 fellows have graduated from the program. More than 100 doctors practicing in Mesa County are either graduates or former faculty of the program.

Taggart says 27 residents receive training at a given time with nine residents graduating and nine residents joining the program each year.

Residents receive clinical training and care for patients in a variety of settings, he says, including not only the family medicine clinic and emergency room at St. Mary’s, but also the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and West Springs psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction as well as nursing homes in the area and a homeless clinic.

In addition, residents work in other communities throughout Western Colorado, including Buena Vista, Meeker, Montrose, Salida and Steamboat Springs. The program focuses on providing care in rural areas, Taggart says, and that extends beyond Grand Junction.

Jones says the program is expensive to operate — St. Mary’s Medical Center and SCL Health cover about $3.75 million a year. But the investment pays off, he says, in bringing doctors to the region.

That’s an important consideration, he says, given the shortage of doctors in many areas of the United States — rural areas in particular — as well as what’s projected as a growing shortage.

According to a report published earlier this year by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. could see a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians by 2030.

The report aggregates the shortages in four broad categories: primary care, medical specialties, surgical specialties and other specialties. By 2030, the report forecasts a shortfall of between 14,800 and 49,300 primary care physicians.

A shortage of residency positions is among the bottlenecks in training more doctors, Jones says.

Taggart says the family residency program at St. Mary’s enjoys a national reputation that makes it a desirable program among medical school graduates — and in turn a competitive program. More than 150 applicants are interviewed for nine openings, he says.  “We definitively get the cream of the crop.”

Meinzen says he grew up in Kansas and attended the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. He says he applied to residency programs across the country — including programs in Maine and California — but wanted to come to Grand Junction. “This was my favorite program. My No. 1 choice.”

Meinzen says the program lived up to his expectations in offering both intensive and diverse training in treating a range of issues in a variety of settings. “It’s been a pretty remarkable experience.”

Meinzen says he decided to stay in the Grand Valley to practice for a variety of reasons, among them the opportunity to provide in-patient care in a hospital. “I like making sick people better.”

But he’s also developed connections to the area, he says. His wife, Laura, teaches at Palisade High School.

Jones says Meinzen isn’t unusual. Most doctors tend to stay and practice where they’ve completed their residencies.

That’s just one of the reasons the family medicine residency program at St. Mary’s is so important, Jones says. “We’re promoting a public good, which the community benefits from tremendously.”