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Published August 08, 2010, 12:00 AM

Dahl, M.D.: Homegrown medical talent

About 25 years ago, Theresa Dahl figured she’d buy a children’s medical kit to amuse her four kids. Their father was a family physician, so it seemed a natural toy. “I don’t think they ever played with it after the first day or two,” Dahl said.

By: Emily Hartley, INFORUM

About 25 years ago, Theresa Dahl figured she’d buy a children’s medical kit to amuse her four kids. Their father was a family physician, so it seemed a natural toy.

“I don’t think they ever played with it after the first day or two,” Dahl said.

Her children may have had more on their minds than medicine back then. But today, the family of health care workers is a prime example of what area medical providers call “homegrown” talent.

With a nationwide shortage of physicians and other medical workers, providers claim local medical students – and the spouses and friends they bring home – are the region’s biggest recruitment draw.

“When I say ‘grow our own,’ we’re taking that literally,” said Dr. Bruce Pitts, president of Sanford Clinic Fargo. The Dahl family has four medical doctors, as well as a doctor of pharmacy, a licensed pharmacist, a physical therapist and a dentist. And all of them have decided to practice in the Fargo area.

Dr. Bruce Dahl, who has practiced family medicine in West Fargo since 1979, says his children’s choices of profession are an unexpected, but not unwelcome, outcome.

“It kind of surprised me because I never really talked to them about going into medicine,” he said. “I thought that it would be best to let them decide what to do rather than encourage them or discourage them.”

Still, according to Theresa Dahl, who also worked in medicine as a pharmacist until the birth of her fourth child, said the kids couldn’t help being exposed to their father’s profession, like the time Bruce performed CPR on a woman without a heartbeat at a Shanley High School football game.

Of the family’s four children and three children-in-law, only one – daughter Melissa’s husband, Mike Flaherty – does not work in the medical field. He’s a mechanical engineer and teaches at North Dakota State University.

Son Daniel Dahl, who will graduate from his residency training at the University of Minnesota next June, is the only child to choose family medicine.

“I guess growing up in a home where my dad is a family medical doctor, it drew me to it generally,” he said. “As I went through it, I really enjoyed family medicine because it’s through primary care where you really get to know patients and their families.”

The American Academy of Family Physicians estimates there will be a shortage of 40,000 family physicians by 2020, largely due to factors including large student debt loads and a desire for a more structured lifestyle.

Area providers said they rely heavily on local training and residency programs for recruitment, although the Fargo family physician residency through the University of North Dakota closed in 2002, partly to focus funds on rural care and the state’s other family medicine residencies. “If you look at most of the family physicians in our department here in Fargo right now, most of them have had at least part of their training in North Dakota, and a lot of them were graduates of the Fargo program,” said Dr. Richard Vetter, chief of the medical service line at Innovis Health and chairman of the North Dakota Academy of Family Physicians Board of Directors.

Family practice residencies still exist in Bismarck, Minot and Grand Forks, and Innovis and Sanford both said they are looking into restarting one in Fargo. Sanford already has a Fargo primary care residency in internal medicine.

Vetter said doctors tend to practice within 150 miles of where they do their residencies. Without a Fargo program to draw people from outside of the region, area providers turn to locals to bring outsiders in.

“If it’s not the doctor who did some training here or grew up here, it’s the spouse,” Pitts said. “If it’s not the doctor or the spouse, it’s the friend. And so we have regular trap lines to the friends of doctors that we already have.”

To supplement that, programs across the country also cover medical school debt in exchange for service in shortage areas, including the RuralMed Scholarship program that started at UND this year.

For Lindsey Dahl, wife of Benjamin Dahl, the oldest Dahl son, it was her husband who brought her to Fargo. Originally from Longmont, Colo., Lindsey comes from a long line of health care workers, most of whom still practice in her hometown.

“We definitely knew we wanted to be close to family,” she said of recently moving to Fargo, although it wasn’t clear at first whose family that would be.

Lindsey will begin practicing internal medicine at Sanford Clinic Southpointe in September, when Benjamin begins as a neuroradiologist at Sanford Medical Center.

With sister Melissa Flaherty practicing physical therapy at the Sanford South University Campus and younger brother Jonathan Dahl (a dentist) and his wife, Elizabeth Dahl (a doctor of pharmacy), both practicing in Fargo, Daniel Dahl will be the last one to return home next summer. He is doing a month-long clinical rotation in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and has already signed a contract to work at one of Sanford’s Fargo locations.

Daniel said he hopes to practice with his father in the next few years.

Bruce Dahl hopes the same, and with a 31-year career and one big medical family, he said he wouldn’t change a thing.

“There might have been things I could have done that maybe would have been easier or made more money, but I think as far as having an opportunity to really get involved in people’s lives and try to help them and do something I can feel good about, I don’t know what else I would have rather done,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Hartley at (701) 235-7311