Queen Anne doc survives shift from corporate to private practice

It's been almost two years since PacMed closed its Queen Anne Family Medicine clinic, leaving Doctor Bruce Gardner and his staff to face an uncertain future. Rather than packing up and leaving, however, Gardner decided to take out a loan, buy the business and run it himself. It wasn't an easy transition, he conceded.

"We lost money continuously for the first eight or nine months."

Then there were the seemingly endless negotiations with PacMed to buy the clinic in the first place. The discussions involved, among other issues, the cost of medical charts and the goodwill value of the business, Gardner said.

The doctor at least caught a break on the worth of goodwill for the clinic, which has operated under a series of owners since the late 1960s.

"When I bought and sold practices for Providence in my former life, we paid up to half a million for some clinics, pie-in-the-sky money," he said. "In this day and age, it's zero."

The drop in goodwill value reflects a painful reality in health care, according to Gardner.

"It's because medicine is going down the tubes," he said, with unusual bluntness. "We're all taking a beating; we're all getting paid less and working more."

That has to do with shrinking in-surance payments for medical care, Gardner explained.

"In the good old days, you charge a dollar, you get a dollar. Now you charge a dollar, you get 68 cents," he said of an amount that barely covers overhead.

Meanwhile, the cost of supplies, personnel and malpractice insurance are all going up, he noted.

"So we're pinched real tight."

"We see Medicare patients at a loss," Gardner said, adding that he has been accepting new Medicare patients from Queen Anne and Magnolia. Other physicians don't, he noted.

"We decided when we took this [clinic] over that our mission statement was to serve the community ... that this was a community resource," Gardner said of the reason behind the money-losing decision.

He estimates that about a third of his patients are senior citizens, the majority of whom "are walking well," Gardner said. "They're very nice to me.

They want to know how I am," he said of an unexpected patient-doctor role reversal.

"The thing is, this clinic has been here for so long, and we have such a senior population, that for them to go across town after 35 years of coming here, Dr. Gardner didn't think it was fair...," said Marj Yalowicki, who has worked as a medical assistant at the clinic for more than a decade.

Gardner works with a registered nurse, two nurse practitioners and around six other full and part-time administrative staffers. Some of the medical staffers are students from the University of Washington, Seattle Pacific University and Seattle University, he said.

A sign at the front desk gives patients the chance to opt out of contact with the students if they want. "Very few turn it down," said Gardner, who added that his patients like to help the students.

Gardner said he doesn't get paid for teaching, describing it as "a labor of love." Besides, he added, the Hippocratic Oath calls for doctors to honor their teachers and to pass on their medical knowledge to others.

The staff at the clinic will see an average of 60 to 70 patients a day, Gardner said, and the number of total patients is slowly climbing. "We see about six new patients a day."

He also picks up a little work on the side as a self-described "rock doc." That started around five years ago, Gardner said, when he got a call from the Paramount Theatre to treat a member of a famous rock band. The upshot was that word got around, and Gardner treats visiting musicians on a regular basis now, he said.

The occasional band member isn't the only famous patient on the doctor's roster. So is Evening Magazine host John Curley, whom Gardner named because the KING-TV personality outed himself on one of his own programs as he was being taped at Gas Works Park.

Gardner said he has treated Curley for skin cancer and gave him a hard time at the taping about not coming in for a checkup. So Curley stripped off his shirt on camera for an impromptu exam and explained what was going on, Gardner said. Curley's cameraman, Darrel, joked that they were all lucky Gardner wasn't Curley's proctologist, the doctor recalled with a grin. In perhaps a sign of things to come in medicine,

Gardner is also using the Internet to communicate with his patients. He has a Web site hosted by Medem Incorporated, which has links to information about cholesterol and dermatology, Gardner said of just two subjects.

Patients can also set up appointments over the Internet, and they can e-mail him questions about symptoms they have or possible interactions between drugs, for example. Both the questions and Gardner's replies are encrypted, and the patients are charged "a small fee on my part," he said.

Gardner said he recently took the first vacation he's had in almost two years, but he clearly enjoys his work. And while Gardner lives in Fremont, he feels like he's adopted Queen Anne as his own, even umpiring for Queen Anne Little League games.

"I feel plugged in," Gardner said. Queen Anne is like a small town in many ways, "which I really like," he added.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com[[In-content Ad]]