In small town, he's doctor of everything

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2014 - 11:14 AM

Only physician in town of 1,300 is getting national recognition for his commitment to rural medicine.

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Dr. Robert Bösl, recently named Country Doctor of the Year, prepared to stitch up a wound on the hand of Jordan Johnsrud, 25.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ , Star Tribune

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Etta Pederson, 92, stops by the clinic for a follow-up visit. Dr. Robert Bösl, wearing cowboy boots and a stethoscope, strolls into the examining room, checks her breathing, reviews some test results on his laptop and delivers a dose of good news.

Her pneumonia has cleared up. After reviewing her medications, Bösl puts his arm around her shoulder, commends her lovely smile and helps her up with an outstretched hand.

She smiles, well aware that her doctor — the only physician in Starbuck, a town of 1,300 — was recently named national Country Doctor of the Year. There’s a billboard with his picture announcing it along Hwy. 28 as it curls around Lake Minnewaska 140 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

The prestigious award isn’t what impresses Pederson. Nope, it’s what he’s done to ease the irritating rash on her side.

“First doctor I’ve been to that has helped me with my itch,” she says.

Pederson’s son-in-law, who drove her to the appointment, is equally appreciative. “Having a doctor like Bob in a small community like ours is something very precious,” Norman Nissen says. “It means an awful lot.”

And it’s becoming increasingly rare to find family-practice doctors like Bösl who want to plant roots in rural America. The average U.S. doctor is 55 and the number of physicians who will retire soon far outpaces students coming out of medical school willing to work in small communities. A recent study predicts a nationwide shortage of 90,000 doctors a decade from now as loan-strapped med students opt for such high-paying specialties as cardiology and orthopedics in big-city hospitals over the do-it-all juggling acts of small-town docs like Bösl.

That’s why the Country Doctor of the Year award is extra sweet and includes more than a plaque, an engraved stethoscope and a monogrammed lab coat. The Texas-based health care staffing company that presented the award will pay the $10,000 cost to send a temporary physician to fill in for Bösl. That will allow the doctor his first two-week vacation in nearly a decade. He plans to head to Nevada to play golf in March.

‘Let’s keep it going’

Bösl (pronounced “basil”) knew he would face myriad challenges practicing family medicine in rural Minnesota when he chose to settle in Starbuck 33 years ago. But the people, the lake and the broad variety of cases all appealed to him.

“Remember that TV show when you didn’t know what was behind Door Number 2? Well, that’s the way we practice medicine here,” he said, on his way to sew five stitches into the cut flesh between a 25-year-old’s left thumb and forefinger.

He grew up about 30 miles away, south of Sauk Centre. After serving as a medic in Vietnam, he was drawn back to the area.

“I just felt there was a need out here,” said Bösl, 66, “and I could fully utilize my skills doing the appendectomies, C-sections, tonsillectomies and colonoscopies that I wouldn’t be able to perform in the ­metropolitan area with all those specialists around.”

Starbuck has a long history of quality doctors, dating to the 1800s. But when the Minnewaska District Hospital closed its doors in 2005, Bösl mulled retiring and walking away from a successful career. Then he shook his head.

“People retire when they no longer feel good about what they’re doing,” he said between patients. “At that time I felt good about what I was doing and felt this community deserves the good health care it’s enjoyed for many years so I thought: Let’s keep it going.”

He took out a mortgage on his house, invested his savings and literally built the clinic from scratch — even pouring his own footings on a chilly New Year’s Day nine years ago.

Now a year past the traditional retirement age, Bösl jokes with his staff that the “R” word is banned at the Starbuck clinic. But he acknowledged administrators who manage the clinic have been searching for Bösl’s eventual successor.

“You can’t just go into the grocery store and find a doc that’s willing to practice in a rural area,” he said. “A lot of people don’t feel comfortable practicing without a bunch of other doctors nearby.”

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