Cardiologists in Central Oregon have been stretching their practice hours and hiring new doctors to accommodate more patients after three cardiologists abruptly left their Bend practices earlier this year.

The departure of the heart doctors from Summit Medical Group Oregon-Bend Memorial Clinic in April left thousands of patients in the region — particularly those who had never seen a cardiologist before — scrambling to find appointments.

“We’ve tried to do as much as possible to accommodate the demand,” said Dr. Bruce McLellan, a cardiologist with the St. Charles Heart and Lung Center. “Most of us are seeing more patients per day when we’re in the office. It’s not banker’s hours here.”

McClellan said the center had a backlog of 800 new patients seeking appointments just a few weeks after the BMC cardiologists left. That backlog has grown to more than 1,000.

“The demand for cardiology services in the St. Charles practice has gone up considerably,” said John Weinsheim, president of the St. Charles Medical Group, which employs doctors within the St. Charles Health System. “We immediately started recruiting four additional physicians.”

One of those doctors will start next week, and another will join the practice in September. Another of the four new hires will be an interventional cardiologist, who can perform heart procedures such as cardiac catheterizations. St. Charles cardiologists have also taken over all of the care of cardiology patients admitted to the hospital.

Summit-BMC intends to hire three to four new cardiologists to reconstitute its cardiology practice, possibly within the next few months.

“It’s an absolute commitment of our board and our organization to have cardiology here at BMC,” Dr. David Holloway, chief physician executive at the clinic. “We consider it an important part of our ecosystem.”

In the interim, BMC has brought in a cardiologist from Salem to fill in with help from other heart doctors on short-term contracts. The clinic will likely bring in three to four cardiologists all at once, to limit the number of nights each doctor will have to be on call for cardiac emergencies. BMC and St. Charles cardiologists have tried in the past to establish a call-sharing arrangement, but those arrangements have been short-lived.

High Lakes Health Care also has a single cardiologist, Dr. Michael Widmer, who left the St. Charles group to joined the practice half-time two years ago. Before his arrival, some 1,500 High Lakes patients had been seeing the BMC cardiologists, and the practice opted not to disrupt their care after Widmer arrived.

But in April, Widmer expanded his hours to allow those patients to return to High Lakes for their general cardiology care. He says cardiologists in the region have been taking on tasks such as cholesterol or blood pressure management that their primary care colleagues are well-trained to do.

“But because primary care access is limited, we assume a lot of that care, which then affects access for new referrals for more complex and higher acuity care, like heart failure, primary hypertension, valve problems and acute coronary syndrome,” Widmer said.

Widmer has had to send some patients needing more specialized services to Portland or Eugene, particular those who need to see an electrophysiologist for heart rhythm problems. St. Charles currently has two electrophysiologists on staff.

“They couldn’t wait four to six weeks, sometimes eight weeks to get into see them for things like urgent pacemakers and ablation procedures,” he said. “The groups in Portland have been very gracious and able to get patients in within a couple of weeks.”

With the growing and aging population in Central Oregon, demand for both cardiology and primary care services continues to rise. If Summit-BMC is able to bring back a full cardiology practice along with St. Charles’ expansion, it could dramatically increase the number of heart doctors in the region.

But the St. Charles group isn’t counting on that.

“We are making all of our plans as if they aren’t going to come back,” McLellan said. “Going forward, we think that because of our clearly superior size, we can make plans to provide complete cardiovascular services for Central and Eastern Oregon with all providers from the St. Charles Medical Group. … We will plan to take care of everybody.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2162, mhawryluk@bendbulletin.com

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