Freeland Clinic attracts doctor with taxpayer help

"Is there a doctor in the house?Yes, if you mean Dr. Patrice O’Neill’s Freeland Clinic. She’s finally landed another doctor to help her with her busy practice -- thanks in part to the taxpayers of the Whidbey Island Public Hospital District.Thomas Harris, D.O., moved into the clinic last week. As an osteopathic physician and surgeon, he follows a branch of medicine that, according Webster’s dictionary, believes that “diseases are chiefly due to loss of structural integrity which can be restored by manipulation of the parts supplemented by therapeutic measures (medicine and surgery).”Harris earned his medical degree from Western University in Pomona, Calif. His training included the standard medical courses plus studies in muscular and skeletal manipulation. “We try harder,” Harris said with a laugh, explaining the extra training. Most osteopaths specialize in primary care practice -- some 67 percent, compared to 25 percent of physicians with M.D. behind their names.Harris described osteopathy as “fairly undistinguishable” from M.D. treatment, except for “additional tools for back pain,” and the like.Dr. O’Neill expressed delight in having Harris join her clinic, and described osteopathy as “a different flavor” of medical care. Like M.D.’s such as herself, D.O.’s “believe in using science.”Harris comes to Whidbey Island from Vancouver, Wash., where he was a doctor with Kaiser, a huge nationwide health maintenance organization. It was a good position, Harris said, but he decided to break “the golden handcuffs” and find a more rural area to practice and raise his children. “We have a country streak in us,” he said.He and his wife Dana have a son, Noah, age 8, and a daughter, Sommer, age 5. They will remain in Vancouver until their house sells, then join him on the island.Harris, 42, has an eclectic background that many islanders can relate to. He spent a couple of summers as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and has worked as an EMT, emergency room assistant and medical assistant. He has been practicing medicine for five years.One of his major interests is the theater. He aspired to be an actor as a young man in California and took part in many amateur and semi-professional productions. Even in medical school he found a drama club to join.“I truly enjoy the theater,” he said. And he realizes that South Whidbey is home to many theatrical people. “The arts community was a bit of the draw,” he said.Whether he’ll have much time for the theater is another question. In his first week at the Freeland Clinic patients were already being scheduled. “It’s getting pretty busy pretty fast,” he said.Harris said he discovered the position in Freeland by searching the Internet. It was placed there by a recruiting firm hired by the hospital district, according to Scott Rhine, CEO of Whidbey General Hospital. Attracting another doctor to Dr. O’Neill’s clinic was part of the hospital’s plan to improve medical care on South Whidbey.Rhine said the search firm was paid $19,000, and the hospital district paid $10,000 to Dr. Harris as a relocation fee to use however he wants -- either for direct moving expenses or to equip his office.In addition, Dr. Harris was advanced $85,000 as an income guarantee for his first year of practice in Freeland. Rhine said that will give Harris cash flow for his practice. The no-interest advance is to be paid back over the course of 24 months.“In the old days a doctor could come out of medical school and get the backing of a financial institution,” Rhine said. “But with managed care, the cost of medical school and residency, it’s getting harder and harder to get the capital to start a practice.” Providing that capital can encourage doctors such as Harris to practice in a rural community.“We’re excited to have him on the island,” Rhine said."

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