West Newton Borough losing primary care doctor

Dr. Thomas Ljungman poses for a photo last week in front of the West Newton Primary Health Center. Ljungman is taking an indefinite leave of absence when Excela Health closes the doors the West Newton branch on Aug. 31.
Dr. Thomas Ljungman poses for a photo last week in front of the West Newton Primary Health Center. Ljungman is taking an indefinite leave of absence when Excela Health closes the doors the West Newton branch on Aug. 31.
Photo by Lindsay Dill | Tribune-Review
Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Excela Health is closing its physician's office in West Newton on Saturday, which will leave the borough without a primary care physician.

Dr. Thomas Ljungman, 51, who has staffed Excela Health West Newton Family Medicine for the past seven years and has worked at that office at various times over the past 20 years, is taking an indefinite leave of absence.

Ljungman said last week he will continue to be the director of Excela Health's Well-Being Center, which has a range of programs designed to help employees live a healthy lifestyle and maintain their health.

Excela Health does not have any plans, at this time, to fill the vacancy with another physician, said Robin Jennings, Excela Health spokeswoman. Excela Health's QuikDraw, located in the same building in West Newton, will remain open, she said.

“Dr. Ljungman made a decision to step away from office practice and, with the transition, we are using the opportunity to direct patients to other resources,” Jennings said.

Ljungman's patients were disappointed he is leaving the West Newton office.

Cynthia Ambrose of Pleasant Unity said she has traveled to West Newton for several years to be treated by Ljungman.

The closing of the office leaves “you trying to find someone else you think is good for you,” Ambrose said.

“I hate to see him go,” said Paul Kirkland of Hempfield's Wendover neighborhood, who picked up his medical records from Ljungman's office last week.

Kirkland said he had been Ljungman's patient for several years, starting when he was practicing in the Greensburg area.

Ljungman is the sole family doctor at the Second Street office, after having been part of a group practice at offices in the Greensburg and Youngwood areas. Excela Health has provided support services for the operation of the office, including staff and the infrastructure for electronic medical records, Ljungman said.

“Being a sole practitioner is a bit challenging. I think it is harder to do,” than being part of a group practice, where some of the responsibilities of patient care can be shared, Ljungman said.

Excela Health has notified Ljungman's patients of other Excela Health-owned physician practices, “not in West Newton proper, but in surrounding practices in Mt. Pleasant, as well as in Norwin and Excela Square,” at the Norwin Hills Shopping Center in North Huntingdon, Jennings said.

Offering patients the option of going to Frick Hospital in Mt. Pleasant or Excela Norwin Square in North Huntingdon to see a family doctor is a problem “when this town has no public transportation and many in the community are elderly and poor,” said Aaron B. Nelson, president of Downtown West Newton Inc., a community development group.

Some of Ljungman's patients have chosen a family physician closer to home — Dr. Frank McGrogan, an independent family physician, whose office is along Route 31 in South Huntingdon, just outside the borough.

“We have picked up some of his patients,” said McGrogan, a South Huntingdon native who has practiced in his hometown for 25 years.

Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Jefferson Hills, declined to comment on whether it would fill the void by opening a physician's office in West Newton, said Candy Williams, hospital spokeswoman. Jefferson Regional is about 15 miles from West Newton, slightly closer than Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg.

The Monongahela Valley Hospital in Carroll Township, Washington County, already serves West Newton residents at its Mon-Vale HealthPLEX along Route 51 in Rostraver, said Corrine Laboon, a hospital spokeswoman.

The West Newton area is categorized as a primary care health professional shortage area, one of 150 in the state, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

The federal agency designated the Mon Valley — consisting of West Newton, Monessen, North Belle Vernon and Rostraver in Westmoreland County — as being a health professional shortage area in September 2001, and then again in February 2011.

The Health Resources administration, which is the primary federal agency for improving access to health care services for the uninsured, isolated and medically vulnerable, said the Mon Valley was medically under served because it had too few primary care providers, high infant mortality, high poverty and high elderly population.

Excela Health's family medicine residency program announced in June it is preparing to gradually expand its three-year residency program from 18 to 24 persons.

“Our graduates have gone on to become ‘traditional' family doctors, urgent care doctors, hospitalists and physicians who practice outpatient only,” Dr. Michael Semelka said in a statement.

Attracting physicians to practice in rural areas has been a challenge nationwide, said Dr. James C. Dewar, vice chair of education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's Department of Family Medicine.

The rural areas contain about 20 percent of the nation's population, but have only 10 percent of the doctors, Dewar said.

“There's a mismatch,” Dewar said. “The people who tend to practice in rural areas, tend to grow up in rural areas,” and the majority of students going into medical school are not from rural areas, Dewar said.

“It takes a special person to be a rural doctor,” Dewar said.

McGrogan, who has admitting privileges at Excela Health, said it is challenging to have a small independent practice at this time.

“It's a burden to keep up with the federal government ... with increasing regulation,” and requirements for getting reimbursed for providing medical treatment, McGrogan said.

“It takes time away from patient care,” McGrogan said.

Despite the regulations and changes in the health care business, “it's very rewarding to be a country doctor. You're taking care of family and friends and you have the satisfaction of knowing the patients and keeping them in good health. That hasn't changed,” McGrogan said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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