News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Health care in a growing Sisters

Robin Meter is the interim chief administrative officer for St. Charles Medical Group, a component of St. Charles Health System. Think of the two as “the hospitals” and “the docs,” if you will. The Medical Group was established in 2010 and consists of over 275 primary care physicians and specialists in 30-plus subspecialties, including family and internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and immediate/urgent care among others.

The Medical Group works out of clinics in Bend, Redmond, Madras, Prineville, and here in Sisters. The Group handles some 300,000 patient visits annually. The Nugget caught up with Meter at lunchtime last week in a broad-ranging interview about the state of health care as it relates to Sisters and the growth being experienced in Sisters Country.

Can St. Charles keep pace?

Meter believes the unit can deliver more services. Indeed, more are planned and within striking distance. They are in the late stages of hiring a third doctor for the practice at the Sisters clinic at N. Arrowleaf Trail.

This is in addition to recruiting for an APP (advanced practice provider) with experience in urgent care.

“We’re also hoping to have another two MAs (medical assistants) join the team,” Meter said, as he expressed the frustration of staffing — a nationwide problem most acute in health care.

St. Charles has openings system-wide in the hundreds. Like their counterparts throughout Oregon, they lost large numbers of staff during the COVID pandemic, mostly due to burnout, and some to the vaccine mandate.

“We think we are competitive in pay and benefits,” Meter said, concluding: “There simply aren’t enough workers.”

The shortage predated COVID-19, actually, with projections over the past 20 years showing an ever-widening gap between need and availability.

Meter went on to lament housing costs in Sisters as being a drawback to recruitment, which is also true of their Bend operation.

24-hour care in Sisters

The numbers just don’t pencil out for Sisters to have 24-hour emergency care. Meter says it takes a concentrated population of 25-30,000 for such a facility. But, he said, “We can grow our hours in Sisters and we look to expand hours once we can staff.”

He’s not talking about a full-fledged immediate care unit but one that creates more opportunity for care on an urgent or walk-in basis. The building on Arrowleaf is 5,750 square feet, with 10 exam rooms plus lab and X-ray capability. The lab has not been able to operate fully due to staffing, a problem Meter expects to overcome with the new hires.

“With flex hours, we see being able to expand the Sisters clinic by two or three hours a day and even the possibility of Saturday hours,” he projected.

And he’s thinking still this year or by next.

Meter is enthusiastic about virtual immediate care now in beta testing, which he’s hoping to roll out in the third quarter. It’s telemedicine or “Zoom” medicine, where the patient is connected to a staffed urgent care specialist in Bend. Most urgent patients are actually not an emergency. Their pain of condition, however, is immediate and in the majority of cases can be treated without hands on treatment.

It’s the future especially in a town the size of Sisters where Meter also points to the large number of tourists who need immediate care – everything from recreation related minor accidents to leaving their meds at home.

The median age of Sisters that skews older than the rest of the St. Charles coverage area is of no concern, Meter said, and the Sisters Clinic is accepting new patients including those covered by Medicare.

“We are open for everybody, maybe even especially Medicare patients,” he said.

St. Charles is top-of-mind when thinking about health care in Central Oregon. They are not alone of course in providing medical services other than an actual hospital. Especially in urgent care. In Redmond, closest to Sisters, Summit Medical Group, formerly BMC, has a busy unit. Summit also has its clinic right here in town on East Cascade Avenue with two MDs and a lab with limited hours.

There is also Nova Health Urgent Care, Family Choice Urgent Care, Your Care, and High Lakes Health Care all with varying degrees of hours of service and capabilities. Meter sees them all as being integral to the discussion about providing Sisters with a good choice of options.

Notwithstanding continuing staff burnout, particularly among bedside caregivers, Meter is cautiously optimistic that St. Charles can keep pace with the growth in Sisters and the region. Day to day the system faces many hurdles, like supply-chain issues that result in the occasional shortage of critical medical supplies.

Meter will be among panelists at the upcoming Keeping Sisters “Sisters” event to be held Thursday, May 12, 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Sisters Fire District Community Hall, presented by Citizens4Community and The Nugget.


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