Live and Practice: Family friendly spots for physicians

Four cities where nature and humans seem to collaborate to provide an environment conducive to family well-being.

Remember Cinderella, the stepchild literally from the fireplace cinders who triumphed in the end when she enchanted the handsome prince? This is the happy life of the fairy tale world.

But wait! Some of the make-believe may be seguing into reality. The good life seems to have become a fixture in some American cities, thanks to a convergence of energetic citizens, dedicated government, good schools, concerned employers and, in some cases, almost-heavenly natural surroundings.

PracticeLink searched the country and focused on four communities that seem to meet these family-friendly qualifications. It’s time to meet Hagerstown, Md.; Provo, Utah; Rochester, N.Y.; and Kansas City, Mo.

The Hub City
Hagerstown, Md.

An aerial photo of Hagerstown’s main street can be misleading. Low-slung buildings, a liberal sprinkling of leafed-out trees and a few cars cruising through an intersection seem like the hallmarks of a sleepy, out-of-the-way burg. “I can’t think of a time except really early morning when it’s not busy,” says Richard Wright, the communications officer for Washington County Public Schools (headquartered in Hagerstown).

Near that intersection, reports Sidney Gale, physician recruiter for Meritus Medical Center, there are businesses, a TV station, the visitors bureau and a thriving coffee shop, not to mention popular restaurants. A nearby two-block area is home to the Arts and Entertainment District, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and the Maryland Theatre, all with healthy servings of music and stage shows. A recent newcomer in the district is the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, a perfect location for dedicated students.

Not many GPS degrees away, cars, patients, doctors and nurses come and go in the thriving 55-acre Meritus complex. Hagerstown’s population may be small (about 40,000), but Meritus offers care to a metro-area population of more than 269,000 and is the hub for much of western Maryland and nearby Pennsylvania and West Virginia areas. The stage is also set for an ever-increasing patient population. Located in the Cumberland Valley between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains and not far from the celebrated Skyline Drive, the area is cited as Maryland’s fastest-growing metro area.

In its new quarters since 2010, Meritus provides care facilitated by the latest state-of-the-art technology. Imaging and lab facilities, computerized physician order entry, electronic documentation and even a pneumatic tube system that cuts wait time for medications are all strategically located near the ER. A connecting building, the huge, “full-service” Robinwood Professional Center, houses 125 care providers, lab facility, pharmacy, medical devices dispensary and offices for home health services, not to mention a café for hungry patients and professionals.

“I call it the Mall of Doctors,” says family specialist Joseph Asuncion, M.D. “It’s one-stop shopping. You can find any specialist you need there.”

Joseph Asuncion, M.D., and his family enjoy all that Hagerstown, Md., has to offer—from the Maryland Symphony Orchestra to hiking nearby.

Asuncion is well acquainted with this northern part of Maryland, where the “skinny” area of the state begins and then meanders to the west. He arrived with his parents at age 6 and grew up in the area. When his parents wanted him to touch base with his heritage, he returned to the Philippines to study medicine, but the lure of Maryland was too strong to resist. He began practicing in Frederick, 25 miles south of Hagerstown, but after 15 years, he joined Meritus. Two years later, weary of the 40-minute commute, he moved his family north. “A lot of patients followed me from Frederick,” he says. “They said, ‘You look a lot happier.’ And I am.”

The grand hospital facilities were by no means the only draw for him and his family, although he adds, “They take care of the doctors. Good pay, a good office, good facilities and good workers. (Professionally), what else could you ask?”

Hagerstown has been a good family location for him, and the Asuncions have taken ample advantage of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, “wonderful plays and shows” and “terrific restaurants.” Not to mention other educational offerings. For instance, says Gale, the recruiter, “Hagerstown has the most certified museums of any county in Maryland.”

“Here,” Asuncion says, “you have the city life but basically the outdoor life, too. The mountains are within 30 minutes, it’s an hour to major ski areas and it’s two hours to the beach. We take advantage of it all!” Not to mention the proximity of Baltimore and D.C. On a recent Washington trip, he was fascinated with the International Spy Museum in particular. “I was actually crawling in the duct work with our daughter and spying on people,” he says with a laugh.

Education is also alive and well—and thriving—with a total of 46 public and at least 13 private schools, including several gifted or magnet institutions as well as schools for those who might have fallen into the cracks along the way. There’s an evening high school for those who want to retake courses or accumulate additional credits, a “non-traditional” night school for those unable to attend during regular hours and a “family center” for young parents to finish their education at times when they can find babysitters. “We worked hard to develop programs to fit students who may not fit into traditional settings,” says Wright at the education office. “We want them to have a great start in their next phase of life.”

The pleasant, family-friendly life was not always thus in this strategically located city near the Potomac River. In 1762, a multitasking German immigrant (farmer, fur trader, politician) from Pennsylvania, Jonathan Hager, acquired 10,000 acres and laid out a plan for a new town. He had cleverly set up shop at the crossroads of an important Native American trade route. The town became a transportation hub, especially after three railroads converged in a wagon wheel pattern.

But the happy ending became a distant dream with the start of the Civil War. Hagerstown’s excellent trading location in the Cumberland Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains became an excellent strategic military location. The inescapable conclusion: Not one, but four major campaigns, including the Battle of Antietam, the one-day bloodiest conflict on American soil. The city itself was occupied off and on, and local doctors and citizens aided men from both sides. After the war, some 2,800 Confederate soldiers were buried in a special section of the city’s Rose Hill Cemetery.

Today the area’s natural beauty and opportunities for hiking and other mountain activities are natural draws for residents—and vacationers. The city business climate includes branches of several national corporations, including Volvo Powertrain, First Data, FedEx Ground and a Staples distribution center, as well as state and federal government enclaves. But, lest we forget, a Civil War Plaques District serves as a reminder of bad times past.

Battle reenactments also draw large attendances. Although the subject is serious, Asuncion recalls one expedition with a twist. “It was so real,” he remembers. “You had a line of a hundred guys in front of you, with a hundred people aiming guns at you. Cannons were going off on the hill. People were marching. Then it brought you back to reality—when a yellow fire truck came down the hill!”

Welcome Home!
Provo, Utah

“Welcome Home” is Provo’s new slogan, complete with bright artwork symbolizing water, mountains and sunrays. It’s part of a new city makeover plan, “Vision 2030,” with the tagline, “How well are we doing, and how can we improve?”

However, it’s hard to believe that there’s room for much more enhancement, beginning with the environment. City spokesperson Helen Anderson reels off the natural assets of the area—mountains, lakes, bike trails, climbing…But that’s just a start. Provo is located in the Utah Valley beneath Mount Timpanogos, a massive, rugged peak of the Wasatch Range at the western edge of the Rockies. It’s an inspiring setting for the circular, high-spired white Provo Utah Temple that stands out against the stark gray mountain. The great outdoors is a perfect accompaniment, filled with mountain and riverside trails, fly-fishing, inner tube floating, boating, trail riding and journeys of exploration along picturesque highways.

Actor Robert Redford’s Sundance Ski Resort is a mere half-hour northeast of Provo Canyon and offers a surprising lineup of other amenities, such as a summer theater, Utah Symphony concerts, an author series, and, of course, the well-known Sundance Film Festival.

Jordan Blanchard, M.D., notes that his residency program has been particularly family friendly. He plans to practice in rural Idaho after residency.

All of the above enhance the good life for Stephen Welsh, M.D., and Jordan Blanchard, M.D.  Both are outdoors oriented and in family medicine residency programs at the Utah Valley Medical Center and have settled on specific career paths. “Growing up,” says Welsh, “I wanted to do something where I was with people. I didn’t want to sit at a desk. I love a long-term relationship with people, because it keeps primary medicine more interesting. In Provo, it’s also fun to take care of a population that cares about its health and people who listen to my advice.”

Says Blanchard, “I want to go rural in Idaho.” More specifically, he’s looking to a career life in the ER.

As homegrown Utahans, they’ve long been aware of Provo’s assets and outdoor advantages. Welsh’s undergraduate experience was at Brigham Young University, the Mormon-founded and oriented institution that has become the city’s signature identity. Blanchard attended BYU-Idaho. Both earned medical degrees at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. They’re each married, with children (three for Welsh, four for Blanchard), whom they enjoy introducing to the great outdoors just beyond their doorsteps. “Probably our favorite thing,” reports Welsh, “is the mountains. It’s only takes about 20 minutes to get up to a canyon, and we go hiking a lot.” The ambience includes “really cool parks in the mountains where we take the kids to play and see the leaves.”

For special excursions, two choices are within easy reach. Welsh’s wife takes the brood to Seven Peaks, a water and amusement park. For an even bigger treat, both the Welshes and the Blanchards take a short ride to Thanksgiving Point, a 312-acre wonderland with activities for all ages, including a demonstration farm, the Museum of Ancient Life (a huge collection of mounted dinosaurs), a new Museum of Natural Curiosity and 55 acres of gardens. A yearlong family pass is a bargain at $175.

Provo parents are committed to quality education for their children. Almost all schools have been built since the 1990s, and four since 2002. The oldest (1931) has been retrofitted with an iPad and Apple TV to connect students with teachers, and some schools boast several desktops in each room. But Laken Cannon, community relations director for the system, credits the 90+ percent graduation rate not only to “phenomenal classroom instruction,” but to the many volunteers. “One thing I really appreciate is that we have such involved parents,” Cannon notes, also citing at least one unusual program. “One school is across from the BYU law school, and every fourth grader is assigned a law student as a kind of big brother who will help with homework if needed or simply play catch with a group. It’s someone they can look up to who is doing something good.”

Meanwhile, back at the hospital, Blanchard had discovered a heartwarming adjunct to his job—an unusually family-friendly program. He recently noted, “My wife went to lunch today with the head of the residency program and the other wives. He wanted to check up on how things are going.” But there’s more. “Almost every week, the spouses go out for lunch. There are picnics, and they get together with the kids for play groups or at the park.”

The hospital itself is one of 22 facilities operated by Intermountain Healthcare, an organization that enjoyed a moment of national recognition when, in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney equated it with other celebrated American clinics. Utah Valley Regional Medical Center strives to deliver “quality care at the lowest appropriate cost.” It’s now a Level II trauma center with several programs of excellence, plus a 24-hour life-flight service and 12-hour InstaCare on the BYU campus.

Recent additions include a sleep center, expanded NICU and an emergency baby-delivery simulation program. A new outpatient center incorporates, among others, a women’s center, same-day surgery, sports medicine and orthopedic procedures.

About eight years ago, Intermountain also started its LiVe program to improve fitness and eating habits among teens. An intriguing and popular feature is a group of mobile vending machines. The contents are packaged to look like cookies and candy, with no coins required. The packages contain helpful health tips.

An outsider impression about friendly places is probably that they must all be small towns. Not so in this case. The Provo population is about 112,000, and the metro totals some 527,000. Another surprise, for its size: the strong sense of patriotism, which culminates every year in the huge America’s Freedom Festival.

Also, in its size group, Provo is considered the most conservative city in the U.S. However, that doesn’t dim its friendly reputation—for everyone, including thousands of foreign students who attend BYU. There’s also the nearby Mormon missionary training center.

As for the “Welcome Home” slogan, it translates to newcomers as well. “People not familiar with Utah might think there’s a lack of diversity here,” says Welsh, “but Provo especially is one of the most diverse areas in the state.” For his family, proof is just up the street. “We have neighbors from Nepal and Mongolia.”

Flower City
Rochester, N.Y.

Considering the array of floral-related events in Rochester, N.Y., it’s easy to joke that the flower population is exponentially larger than the people population. Exhibit A: the 10-day Lilac Festival in May, a fixture since 1898. Today, it’s become an “international springtime party,” headquartered among some 1,200 lilac bushes in the city’s Highland Park.

The Maplewood Rose Celebration takes over in June, offering jazz, wine and a Father’s Day Picnic in a setting of 5,000-plus roses. Flower City Days at the Market absorb five Sundays in May and June, when growers show off hundreds of plants at the huge Rochester Public Market. And there’s more: seemingly insatiable floral devotees attend garden talks in spring, summer and fall.

The flower scene, of course, is just one of Rochester’s considerable assets, both natural and manmade. Early settlers—and travelers—were attracted by the High Falls of the Genesee River, which flows through the city. The falls’ 96-foot drop created an ideal location for many gristmills—and prompted the city’s previous nickname, the Flour City. Other manufacturing followed, but the business climate eventually concentrated on technology, as in Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb, the company that progressed from monocles to contact lenses, implants and many other vision-related products.

Not surprisingly, this trio attracted some of the best and brightest employees. “Kodak is in trouble (these days),” noted Mayor Thomas Richards in his 2012 state of the city address, “but its workers have provided the area with an extremely skilled workforce that has been able to rebound into other industries.”

One way or another, Rochester is now noted for the fifth most patents per capita in the U.S., and as one of the top 20 most innovative cities, according to a city spokesman. Hand in hand with the technical brainpower is an unusual number of colleges in the area, but with a special spotlight on the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Ana Molovic-Kokovic, M.D., and family enjoy Rochester’s many cultural activities.

This concentration was important in the decision of internist Ana Molovic-Kokovic, M.D., to accept a position with Rochester General Hospital after finishing a residency in New York City’s crowded borough of The Bronx. “With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from my country, Serbia, my husband was looking to continue his education,” she says. In fact, thinking ahead for her daughter’s education, she was pleased to learn that all of the Rochester public schools are rated among the hundred best in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report. (Suburbs such as Brighton, Fairport and Pittsford are often cited among the best.) Overall, the city is “not quite the same as Boston or other big cities,” she says, “but big cities have crowds and long commutes. Here there’s no rush hour. And it’s only 17 to 20 minutes from my home to the hospital.”

She cites two other major motivations: “I wanted to be in the Northeast. I like New York State for many reasons, and I wanted to live somewhere at a lower pace where it was more affordable and easy to start a new family.”

Molovic-Kokovic soon discovered other serendipities for children. Her daughter, almost 3, is enrolled in music classes for children at the Eastman School of Music. For fun and fascination, she “absolutely loves” the immense National Museum of Play, an endlessly fascinating playground, featuring not only a collection of some 400,000 toys but many captivating interactive opportunities, from “Sesame Street” to the history of video games. Its architecture alone is irresistible. A huge tumbling set of colorful blocks houses one display area, a caterpillar-like corridor links buildings and a wing-shaped structure encloses a butterfly garden.

The original museum was established by super-philanthropist Margaret Woodbury Strong, whose most prominent philanthropy has been Strong Memorial Hospital, flagship facility of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. It’s noted for its tertiary—and quaternary—care, especially research and treatments above and beyond other hospitals in the region. Also in the UR orbit is Highland Hospital, one of the first homeopathic hospitals in the U.S. when it opened in 1889.

Current excitement is about the groundbreaking for a third UR facility, the 245,000 square-foot Golisano Children’s Hospital, thanks to the generosity of yet another benefactor. The university’s largest capital project in history, Golisano Children’s will include 52 private rooms, a greatly expanded NICU and a “hospitality” suite almost equal to an extended-stay motel.

Rochester General, where Molovic-Kokovic practices, has been noted for its “unparalleled level of personalized attention and compassionate care.” Spokesman Marty Aarons also notes that it’s been cited the most visitor-friendly hospital in Rochester and among the top four in New York State. One example is a new service—Tuesday afternoon tea and scones for patients and visitors.

The list of General’s quality care awards runs as long as three pages. One “item” is its strategic RIT alliance to collaborate on biomedical research. Two unusual “offerings” are a school of medical technology and a two-year youth apprenticeship program for up to 32 high school students that provides 10-week rotations through
20 departments. Director Kimberlyn McDonald notes that all participants for the last seven years have been accepted to college.

The medical technology school, begun in 1934, is probably the second oldest in the U.S. and still survives in a time when many hospitals have eliminated the sequence. “In this economy, it is a wonderful thing to be in this major,” says the program director, Nancy Mitchell. “The day they finish (the program) they can step into a position.”

But medical care and tech business startups are not the only evidence that Rochester is alive and well and keeping up with the times. More than 50 renewal and reconstruction projects are marked on a city business/redevelopment map.

There’s no shortage of leisure activity, either, including 80 or 90 city-sponsored annual events. In addition, special events range from a cookie contest to a summer concert series at High Falls, plus professional sports teams to follow, golf courses and summer swimming programs at 24 locations. Or, a simple but favorite activity of the Molovic-Kokovic family—walking and jogging along the banks of the Erie Canal.

City of Fountains
Kansas City, Mo.

This Midwestern American city on the banks of the Missouri River features at least 250 fountains.

This is a thriving metropolis surrounded by suburbs on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line. Its can-do attitude has spawned public and private funds to build spectacular entertainment centers such as the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the huge, rubber-tire-shaped Sprint Center.

You could say that Kansas City has not one, but four downtowns, starting with the original business district near the Missouri River.

The Crown Center area is about 30 blocks south, followed by the Westport District, the 1800s jumping-off point for four historic westbound trails.

Finally, edging a picturesque creek, is the Country Club Plaza, an upscale version of a Spanish marketplace with hanging flower baskets, sculptures, fountains and art tiles. One land developer has noted, “The Plaza has had the longest life of any planned shopping center in the history of the world.”

While he’s impressed by all of the above, Greg Canty, M.D., succinctly sums up his impression of the city. “The nicest thing is meeting nice Midwestern people.”
He adds, “It’s a very easy city to live in. There’s a short commute time, and there’s hardly anyplace where traffic is so bad that it makes you late.”

Canty moved his family into Brookside, one of some 200 designated city neighborhoods, this one a comfortable 1930s-oriented area with cozy shops and restaurants. Although he doesn’t give high marks to the school district, he notes that “Most folks choose private schools.” As an alternative, the Missouri Charter Public School Association lists 24 schools in the area. Kansas City public schools, unfortunately, have been on a rocky road for some time, with at least two dozen superintendents in the last 40 years and significant low academic performance that has led the state education board to rescind the district’s accreditation.

Not all is gloom, though, says Kent Yocum, a teaching and learning coach in a neighboring district who lives in the Coleman Highlands. “There certainly are superstars (as well as) some not pulling their weight. I really don’t think it’s probably any different from any other environment.”

Canty, who grew up and was educated in Kentucky, moved to Kansas City two years ago to become medical director for the sports medicine program at Children’s Mercy Hospital, focusing on adolescent and school-age athletes. He has since hired two more specialists and expects to be seeking more. “The clinic is full about every day,” he reports.
Like other KC hospitals, Children’s Mercy has satellite facilities in other metro locations. Among other services, it treats 90 percent of area pediatric cancer patients and boasts the highest survival rates (also 90 percent) in the country…a third of the way into a 15-year major expansion plan.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to rename the city Hospital Town, considering the number of facilities per capita in Kansas City proper, plus several in adjoining suburbs, as well as the colossal University of Kansas Medical Center just across the border.

The largest, in terms of beds (611 at last count), is easily Saint Luke’s Hospital, the flagship of a network of 10. It’s one of only three Missouri hospitals to receive a Malcolm Baldrige Award. Among its more advanced services are kidney, heart and, as of 2012, liver transplants, the latter requiring one of the shortest wait times in the U.S.

With more than 80 smoke-grilled pork bistros and 35 jazz clubs and restaurants, not to mention dozens of other leisure-time possibilities, it’s hard to believe anyone who says he’s bored in Kansas City.

 

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