Family-friendly cities physicians love to live and practice
Family-friendly cities physicians love to live and practice

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Live & Practice: Family-Friendly Cities 2022

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Ross Perko, M.D.
Ross Perko, M.D., has raised his family in Duluth, where he also grew up. – Photo by Derek Montgomery

For physicians wanting families, a very important element emerges in the job search: location, location, location. In Duluth, Minnesota, docs find a small city beaming with local pride that’s chock-full of activities on Lake Superior. In Huntsville, Alabama, a historic southern city has outdoor programming year-round with family-friendly activities. In Hanover, New Hampshire, families benefit from the small, college-town atmosphere and proximity to world-class skiing. In Springfield, Missouri, there is a tight-knit community that receives added flavor from the local university.

Duluth, Minnesota

Duluth, Minnesota is changing. What was once a blue-collar mining town is increasingly a city popular with young hipsters attracted to the low cost of living and young parents looking for a family-friendly community. Life in Duluth is heavily centered around Lake Superior, the largest of the great lakes that provides entertainment, culture and temperamental weather patterns across Duluth.

For Ross Perko, M.D., serving children runs in his blood. His mother was a first-grade teacher, and he grew up visiting her classroom and even reading books to her classes. Then his mother got cancer, and his father needed quadruple bypass surgery. Thankfully, both parents recovered, and they are well and active today. Perko was introduced to what he calls “the hopeful side” of medicine. And now, Perko is a pediatric oncologist at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital in Duluth. One could say his calling is the hopeful side of medicine.

“I feel like I won the lottery,” says Perko. “When it comes to pediatric oncology, usually you have to practice in big cities. We’ve been able to do it in Duluth and keep families closer to home. Now families don’t have to drive to Minneapolis-St. Paul for cancer care. They can do it in Duluth.”

Perko was raised in Duluth and attended medical school at the University of Minnesota. He completed his fellowship in pediatric oncology/hematology at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, then returned to his hometown to practice at St. Mary’s. He thoroughly enjoys Duluth and says that the area is experiencing a boom in new people and new activities.

Anna Tanski, President/CEO of Visit Duluth, says this is 100% accurate. She says, “As a lifelong resident, I can tell you we’ve undergone a remarkable renaissance. There has been tremendous reinvestment and revitalization. We are a mid-sized community of about 86,000 with a number of smaller communities around it. It’s about 220,000 people total. Because tourism is our second largest industry behind the medical field, we have amenities for our residents to enjoy all year long because of 6.7 million visitors.”

Tanski says that Duluth’s second-largest differentiator, after Lake Superior, is the extent to which it is family-friendly. “Our specialty is multi-generational family-friendly amenities,” she says. “We have a culture and tradition of creating memories. There is a sense of coming together and everyone supporting youth in our communities, making sure they feel safe and cared for. It’s intentional because we do have such a strong sense of belonging in the character of our city.”

St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital is part of Essentia Health. Essentia Health is currently building a $900 million medical tower in downtown Duluth; this is the largest-ever private investment in the city’s history.

Perko says that the nice facilities and cutting-edge equipment are an important part of morale for some physicians. The trick is to figure out what makes a career in medicine most meaningful and sustainable. Says Perko, “I love my job. The people that choose to practice here are choosing it because of what the life in our system has to offer.”

Says Tanski, “Our hospitals here do a very good job attracting talent. Because we are a small/mid-size city, they are very cognizant that they want to make sure this feels like home for the physicians who choose to have their careers here.”

Perko says that burnout prevention is an important part of Essentia’s culture. He says, “We have a wellness committee that looks at burnout and people’s enjoyment of what they do. The culture is changing everywhere in medicine. We’re talking about burnout more. 

Physicians in their early 40s are people who are looking for work/life balance more than the generation before them. For the previous generation, being a doctor was their entire life and that was their expectation. That’s not always the best when we’re talking about having a sustainable career.”

Perko lives with his wife and three children in Duluth. He says, “I see a lot of great physicians filling their cups. So it’s important to think about how you recharge outside of work. I coach baseball games, I go for a run most days, and my commute is 14 minutes. I want to be doing this for the next 20 plus years, so I think about, ‘How do I keep enjoying it every day?’ Living here, I get to be a dad. I’m a husband and a dad first. I am a pediatric oncologist third. I’m part of a system that allows me to get breaks when I need it. I can reset and say, ‘OK, I’m going to leave early today because I have this game with my kid. We’ll reset and get back on the horse tomorrow.’”

Hanover, New Hampshire

Hanover, New Hampshire, is a bucolic New England college town with a tight-knit year-round community of just 11,000 people. Usually, in such scenic and remote areas, it is difficult to chart out a fast-paced career. Unless, of course, you are a physician, as Hanover is a place with major career advancement opportunities, with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center serving as the area’s largest employer.

Hanover is located in central New Hampshire, on the New Hampshire-Vermont border. Hanover was chartered in 1761 and the town’s college, Dartmouth College, was founded in 1769. Hanover High School was founded in 1888 and has been educating Hanover kids ever since.

For a small town of 11,000 year-round residents, Hanover has a lot of hospitals. This is due in large part to the presence of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health is the largest employer in the state of New Hampshire, with 8,000 employees at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center alone. The three main hospitals in Hanover are Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth (CHaD) and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is a 2 million square foot facility with a Level I trauma center and 396 beds. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center operates the only medical heliport in New Hampshire. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has a 25-acre acre campus. 

The Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth is the only children’s hospital in New Hampshire, and one of just 220 children’s hospitals nationwide. Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital is a small, 25-bed hospital with a variety of outpatient services that provide care for more than 78,000 patients a year.

The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth is the fourth-oldest medical school in the country and is affiliated with Dartmouth College. Doctors at the Geisel School of Medicine are credited with creating the first intensive care unit.

Hanover’s downtown Main Street is the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings: rows of shops and bakeries with jutting awnings on wide, sidewalked streets. Hanover is close to world-class skiing in Vermont and New Hampshire. Stowe, often called the “Vail of the East” in Vermont, is only an hour’s drive away. Hanover is also an hour’s drive from Burlington, the funky northern Vermont city where more arts and culture activities are available. Life in Hanover itself is upscale: the average household income for a family in Hanover is $129,000.

The Connecticut River is a big part of life in Hanover. The Connecticut River divides New Hampshire from Vermont, and waterfront dining and entertainment are popular. There is notable hiking in Hanover, with part of the Appalachian Trail running through. Nearby Moose Mountain attracts hiking enthusiasts from across the region.

After Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Dartmouth College is the largest employer and largest cultural driver in the area. Dartmouth College programs a variety of community activities that enrich family life in the area, including Division I sports, lectures and an art museum. The Hood Museum of Art on Dartmouth College’s campus includes a vast collection of ancient art, contemporary art and sculpture.

Huntsville, Alabama

If your new-city search terms include “family friendly,” “beautiful” or “historic,” Huntsville, Alabama, will be one of your first results. Huntsville is surrounded by verdant mountain ranges that enclose a tight-knit community. Huntsville has a bustling medical community that serves the town and the broader northern Alabama region.

During the Civil War, Union officers occupying northern Alabama were housed in the beautiful, large southern mansions in Huntsville. Lower-ranking soldiers set up camps on the wooded grounds throughout the city. 

Because the city was essentially a base for Union troops, the city received kind treatment from the northern soldiers. Specifically, the southern mansions that housed the officers went unharmed during the war and after. Today, Huntsville is a meticulously preserved historic town with stately, larger-than-life southern mansions.

Huntsville is seated in a basin in the Appalachian Mountains in northern Alabama. It is a two-hour drive south of Nashville and two hours north of Birmingham.

Huntsville is home to Huntsville Hospital, an 881-bed hospital that is the second largest hospital in Alabama. Huntsville Hospital is the regional referral center for northern Alabama and southern Tennessee. Huntsville Hospital also operates the Mobile Medical Unit that provides preventive community health care throughout the Huntsville area. Huntsville Hospital is a not-for-profit community hospital, and all profits are reinvested into health care services for the city of Huntsville.

Huntsville Hospital Health System’s influence on Huntsville is such that there is a “Medical District” of Huntsville that is largely composed of Huntsville Hospital Health System facilities, as well as the Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children and the Blount Hospitality House. 

Blount Hospitality House is a not-for-profit residential facility that houses patients’ families in a comfortable environment, so they can be closer to their loved ones in the hospital. Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children, part of the Huntsville Hospital Health System, delivers more babies than any other hospital in Alabama.

The Huntsville Hospital Health System grew out of Huntsville Hospital. Huntsville Hospital Health System operates small and mid-size hospitals throughout Alabama, with over 2,200 patient beds.

For those interested in academic medicine, the University of Alabama at Birmingham operates the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus and the UAB Medicine Huntsville. The UAB Medicine Huntsville is home to 130 medical students and residents interested in rural medicine. In fact, the UAB School of Medicine offers the Huntsville Rural Medicine Program, for medical students who themselves have rural backgrounds and are interested in practicing rural medicine.

Outside of work, Huntsville had a great deal to offer from its sweeping, hilly vistas to its fun-filled community programming. The Huntsville Botanical Garden is a popular draw, featuring a beautiful wooden pagoda surrounded by reflecting pools. The Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Preserve is 375 acres of woodlands in Huntsville. It has miles of winding trails for hiking and mountain biking, plus a designated area with trails for birding. 

Huntsville is very family-friendly, with scores of activities and events scheduled year-round. There are over 60 parks in Huntsville, including “Kids’ Space,” the largest playground in Huntsville. For summer months when the climate might be too-too hot, Huntsville has indoor children’s museums to keep kiddos entertained and cool. The EarlyWorks Children’s Museum provides an interactive experience for kids to learn about Alabama history. Huntsville is home to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, a nationally renowned museum that has a full variety of space-related treasure—perfect to pique the interest of STEM-oriented kids.

Evening At The Springfield Missouri Square Fountain
Evening at the Springfield, Missouri Square Fountain

Springfield, Missouri

Did you know Springfield is widely believed to be home to America’s animated first family? Indeed, the Simpsons live in “Springfield,” and most signs point to Springfield, Missouri, as their hometown. Springfield is the quintessential mid-size midwestern city, designed to be spread out and family-friendly. Springfield is large enough to have a downtown “Medical Mile” where multiple hospitals and medical campuses are clustered.

Brent Bergen, M.D., a pulmonologist, developed an interest in critical care because of how much variety it introduced into his day. He says, “I had figured out that I didn’t want a sameness to my day. I wanted the variety; I wanted the unexpected. When you’re young and can tolerate the sleep deprivation, it’s a lot of fun to practice critical care medicine.”

Bergen didn’t intend on pursuing medical school until he reached his junior and senior year of college. He attended the University of Oklahoma for medical school with the intent to be a primary care physician.

“When I was doing my residency at Texas A&M in internal medicine, I evolved toward critical care,” he says. “It was somewhat out of respect and admiration for the attending physician I worked with. In residency, if you have a good experience, and you had an attending who made it into a good experience, you could start to gravitate to that specialty more.”

Today, Bergen is medical director of Select Specialty Hospital, a long-term acute care hospital in Springfield. Select Specialty Hospital is a freestanding 60-bed facility located in downtown Springfield, two blocks from Cox Medical Center South.

“Springfield is affordable, clean and easy!” says Paula Johnson, admin director of physician practice development and recruitment for CoxHealth. CoxHealth has been in business for 130 years and boasts a 95 percent physician retention rate.

“We have incredibly talented physicians, an engaged staff, and an organization that is supportive to the health of the community,” Johnson says.

Springfield has a “Medical Mile” that is home to Cox Medical Center South, Mercy Hospital Springfield and Mercy Children’s Hospital. Cox Medical Center South’s campus includes a Level I trauma center, a children’s hospital and a neuroscience center. 

Mercy Hospital Springfield is an 886-bed facility that includes a Level I trauma center, a burn center and a stroke center. Mercy Children’s Hospital provides outpatient and inpatient pediatric care; they employ providers across 60 pediatric subspecialties. The facilities include a Level III pediatric NICU and an on-premises Ronald McDonald House housed in 8,200 feet on the sixth floor of the hospital.

Donna Shelby is director of physician recruitment at CMH in nearby Bolivar, Missouri. She says this part of southwest Missouri features a low cost of living, easy travel from the Springfield-Branson National Airport, and a respectful, appreciative patient base.

“Physicians love to practice at CMH because it’s an independent, progressive, integrated rural health delivery system,” Shelby says. “Physicians have access to a wide array of services and know the specialists who are easily accessible within the system. You can truly make a difference and enjoy the practice environment that is afforded to physicians here.”

In Springfield, health care employs a whopping 17% of all people. Says Susan Wade, public relations manager for the Springfield Missouri Convention and Visitors Bureau, “The big employers are health care, manufacturing, retail, tourism and education. Within the city, there are 160,000 people. The metro area is 420,000. People are moving here because of the lifestyle, the job opportunities and the low cost of living.”

Says Bergen, “It’s in the Midwest. We’re in the Ozarks near Branson. For people who like the outdoors—hunting, fishing, riding bikes, canoeing—they’ll be very busy. There is a lot of natural beauty out here.” Wade heartily agrees. She says, “Springfield is pretty outdoorsy for people who enjoy trails and parks. There are lots of miles of trails. Within a very short drive from Springfield, there are a lot of nice lakes.” Also, Springfield’s largest mall is an outdoor mall, with over 170 stores and boutiques and a layout designed for strolling and window shopping.

For those in the mood for high culture, Springfield will not disappoint with its variety of dining, arts and entertainment offerings. Says Wade, “The dining scene is amazing in Springfield. We joke that you could eat out every day for two years without eating at the same place twice. There is a great nightlife scene. There is a really healthy and vibrant arts community in Springfield. 

We have something really special called The Sculpture Walk. You can walk from one sculpture to another in the downtown area. They change out the sculptures annually, and we have a big celebration when they install the new ones. I like Springfield because it’s big enough to have really anything you’re going to find in a city. We have a great art museum, a symphony, an opera, community theater and another theater at the university that brings in Broadway performances.”

Indeed, Springfield is home to Missouri State University, Cox College, Southwest Baptist University and the University of Missouri Medical School.

In terms of family-friendly cities, Wade says that Springfield is the best of the best. “We have an ice-skating facility, swimming pools and family recreation centers. There is always something for kids to do. We have 100 city parks. Some of them are neighborhood parks, but we also have a botanical center and a farm park with livestock.”

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Liz Funk

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