Bartlett Regional Hospital has launched a nationwide search for a physician to fill the void anticipated when Dr. Henry Akiyama retires at year's end.
The 40-year Juneau internist treats an estimated 6,000 patients, and hospital administrators are concerned if Akiyama doesn't find someone to take over his practice by January, they won't be able to recruit another doctor fast enough to help handle his caseload.
"My medical staff has said they'll do everything they need to do to try to accommodate his patients, but until we get someone in, there may be people that will need to go south (for treatment)," said Robert Valliant, hospital administrator.
Akiyama declined to be interviewed for this article, but his administrator, Candi Harris, said he is close to inking a deal with another physician to take over Akiyama's practice. She declined to give more details until the deal is final. Harris said Akiyama has searched for three years for qualified successors, but has set his standards high and turned away most candidates.
"He has rejected people because he felt they weren't qualified enough. He's looking for a high-caliber physician," Harris said.
Akiyama's clinic hopes to announce a replacement in a couple of days, but if the deal falls through, medical experts say it could be a problem. Valliant said it could take many months to recruit another specialist, and Akiyama has more patients than can be absorbed by local physicians.
Juneau has three other doctors specializing in internal medicine, including Dr. John Krehlik of Juneau Medical Clinic. Krehlik said he began recruiting for another internist a couple months ago, and although "patients are able to get appointments easily" at his clinic now, he's concerned.
"I'm concerned about the community of Juneau we have to make sure we have enough doctors up here," Krehlik said. "The hospital is concerned about it, Dr. Akiyama is concerned, other doctors are, too."
Krehlik said internists specialize in adult medicine and treat many ailments, including diabetes, arthritis, lung problems and gastrointestinal maladies. Krehlik said one of the main differences between internists and family practitioners is internists don't treat children.
"Family practitioners are more generalized and they do the whole range of ages," he said.
Valliant of Bartlett said internists are the "next level up" in expertise from family practitioners, and that family doctors could treat Akiyama's patients. But Akiyama also specializes in cardiovascular diseases, and family doctors might decline those cases, he said.
"Many of his patients require internal medicine because they have cardiology issues and some other issues that family practitioners may not want to deal with," Valliant said.
Dr. Eric Olsen is a family practitioner at Family Practice Physicians, which also has two internists on staff. Olsen said he and the other doctors at his clinic have treated Akiyama's patients in the past and that Family Practice could absorb some of Akiyama's cases. But Olsen said his schedule is "plenty full" now, and he is uneasy about the internist's imminent departure.
"Akiyama is a great doctor, he's a fine physician he's served this town for years and years, and leaving on what amounts to short notice is going to be a real problem," Olsen said.
Valliant said Akiyama asked the hospital for help recruiting a specialist in October, and Bartlett is concerned because the timing left only a couple of months to find another internist before Akiyama retires.
"Our experience has been generally (recruitment) can take up to a year or longer," Valliant said.
Harris of Akiyama's office said the hospital has "known for years" the internist was planning to retire, and she is frustrated because Bartlett initially refused to help Akiyama recruit a specialist.
Garth Hamblin, chief financial officer of Bartlett, said the hospital declined Akiyama's request at first because its medical staff said existing doctors could handle Akiyama's workload. Hamblin said the medical staff changed its mind in early November and unanimously agreed the hospital should help recruit Akiyama's successor.