GARDEN CITY, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.
When Dr. David Peterman, longtime CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, announced his retirement, he found himself getting stopped in the grocery store.
He got emails and Facebook messages. People were thanking him for being a trusted voice during the COVID-19 pandemic, Peterman said.
“That was surprising to me, and I’m glad that I was helpful,” Peterman said. “Really, what I tried to do was to just give plain, straightforward facts about coronavirus and separate it from the politics.”
Primary Health’s size — not too large or too small — makes it nimble enough to pivot and act quickly, said Tracy Morris, president of the company. For example, as different vaccines were approved for different age groups, Peterman would arrive to work that day asking how to prepare facilities to vaccinate newly eligible children, she said. If they had vaccines available, they would be ready by the afternoon to start vaccinations, including creating appointment slots and mobilizing nurses, she said.
“I don’t think we would have done that as quickly as we did without him insisting that we be first and that we do what’s right for the community,” she said.
Peterman, who has acted as CEO since 2004, worked his last day on May 13. Prior to that, and during those 18 years, he has worked to realize a vision of more accessible health care in the Treasure Valley.
Primary Health Medical Group has now grown to 23 clinics, over 120 providers, and 650 employees, Peterman said.
Though navigating the pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges, Peterman said he is proud of his company’s accomplishments.
“While coronavirus had so much tragedy, and so much disruption to our community, to us on personal levels, I am so incredibly grateful and privileged to be the CEO, the leader of Primary Health Medical Group, and to have this incredible team that was able to meet so many of the needs of the community,” he said.
Dr. Dan Reed, who most recently worked as the group’s director of family medicine, is the group’s new CEO.
PRIMARY HEALTH: “CONTINUITY WITH PATIENTS OVER TIME”
Peterman moved to Boise in 1980 with his wife, Mary, from Denver, Colorado. Initially, he worked for a four-person pediatric group called Pediatric Associates. But he grew curious about making health care more efficient, accessible, “and frankly, higher quality,” he said.
In 1994, when the opportunity arose for his medical group to become part of Primary Health Inc., a combined insurance company and medical group, Peterman went for it. He began taking on leadership positions within the group.
The relationship between medical groups and insurance companies was different back then, Peterman said. The health care side was seen as the provider, while the insurance side was seen as needing to pay for everything, Peterman said. The medical group did not have as much say in the structure it was part of, and the relationship was not as collaborative, which led to tension, he said.
“It became clear to me that the conflict of an insurance company owning a medical group was just challenging,” Peterman said. “I thought it was very important that we separate and become independent.”
In 2004, the medical side bought itself out and became Primary Health Medical Group. Peterman became its CEO, he said. In that role, he collaborated with those in the group to eke out his vision for better health care.
One of the big goals for primary care health providers is to create continuity with patients over time, Peterman said.
“You are the medical home for that patient, and you want to work closely with that patient to decide what’s best for them and their family, and in my case as a pediatrician, what’s best for them and their children,” Peterman said.
In the 2000s, urgent care clinics were springing up across the country, Peterman said. Peterman saw the integration of urgent care centers as an important pillar of creating continuity with patients, he said.
Urgent care centers improve health care experiences because patients and parents of patients have quick access to medical care without having to make an appointment, Peterman said.
He began thinking about how to create a health care system that combined urgent care services and preventive services, he said. For example, if a patient came in for urgent care and it turned out they had high blood pressure, they could be treated for whatever ailed them in the moment and referred to the primary care clinic for evaluation on other treatments they might need, he said. This model addresses both acute illnesses and encourages preventative care, he said.
“Around the country, there were primary care clinics or hospitals that said, ‘just add on urgent care,’ and that was not us,” Peterman said. “Ours was a combination clinic; we worked synergistically,” he said, adding that leadership spent a lot of time discussing which services to offer through urgent care versus family practice.
The company also adopted electronic health records early, all in striving for better continuity for patients, Peterman said.
SEEING GENERATIONS OF PATIENTS
In addition to his work as CEO, Peterman has continued seeing pediatric patients, he said. It has been a gratifying experience to have patients that he used to see choose to bring their own children in for care, he said. He has even seen grandchildren of some of his patients.
Just talking with patients for 15 to 20 minutes periodically has allowed Peterman to share in the stories of his patients, including joys, sadness, and the “normal stuff,” like a child getting a B+ on their math test, he said.
“The parents take their kids and leave my office and I’m left with these wonderful memories, and then I see them again a year later,” Peterman said.
COVID-19 BRINGS NEW CHALLENGES
The marketing team at Primary Health noticed a phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic: ahead of cases spiking, visits to the website “skyrocketed,” Peterman said.
The public understood that they could get information from Primary Health, he said. Though hospitals could also provide such information, they needed to focus on caring for the very sick, he said.
Peterman worked with local hospitals such as Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s to better care for the large swath of patients needing COVID testing and information, he said. They held weekly phone calls to coordinate care and try to keep patients from becoming severely ill and needing emergency care, preserving space in hospitals for patients who would need that care, he said.
This involved improving outreach and communication to the public through social media and other channels, creating clinics where COVID-19 testing could happen, and increasing their capacity for taking patient phone calls and answering questions, he said.
The clinic’s response illustrated its proof of concept, Peterman said.
“With a pandemic, it doesn’t matter whether it’s influenza, or Ebola … it has to be confronted at the clinic … at the village level,” Peterman said.
In addition to collaboration with hospitals, Peterman also credited Gov. Brad Little with recognizing the role played by Primary Health, supporting clinics by ensuring they received adequate protective equipment, and deploying National Guardsmen to assist with care efforts, he said.
COLLEAGUES: PETERMAN IS A “CHEERLEADER;” DRAWS ON OTHERS’ EXPERTISE
Morris, the president of Primary Health, has worked with Peterman for 28 years, since before he became CEO, she said. During that time, she has admired Peterman’s advocacy for the potential of the company and its services in the local community, she said.
“He is just absolutely Primary Health’s biggest cheerleader,” Morris said. This translated to a steadfast commitment to contribute to the local health care landscape, in tandem with big players such as St. Luke’s and Saint Al’s, she said.
“He wasn’t afraid to talk to them about how Primary Health could be part of that picture, how we could partner with them and improve the quality of health care in our market,” Morris said.
When coronavirus vaccines first became available for wide distribution in early January 2021, local hospitals were inundated with patients, Morris said. Peterman saw an opportunity to position Primary Health’s clinics to vaccinate people quickly, she said. They let the hospitals know they were increasing vaccination capacity, hired student nurses to help, and opened more vaccination sites, including some that exclusively focused on vaccination on weekends, she said.
Chryssa Rich, the company’s marketing director, has worked in that role for the past eight years and noted Peterman’s skill at leaning on employees with the right skillset to get things done. Peterman, and the company at large, operated with a philosophy of drawing on those closest to the problem to help solve it, she said.
“He’s very good at recognizing and respecting other people’s area of expertise, and he didn’t try to override our recommendations just because he’s the CEO,” she said.
Peterman said the best advice he has gotten about retirement so far is to not commit to any new endeavors too soon. He plans to enjoy activities like mountain biking, fly fishing, visiting his two sons who live out of state more often, and, eventually, finding a niche where he can give back to the community.
Erin Banks Rusby is a reporter with the Idaho Press. She covers Canyon County, including agriculture, education, and government.
This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.
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