Dwight Thompson has always worked in small towns (less than 5,000) since becoming a Physician Assistant. His only city medical experience came when he did his training at the University of Washington in Seattle. “You know everybody in a small town like this. You get to know them outside of the clinic. And, you get to know people - their lives and problems - in other the usual office/hospital ways.”
“We did house calls in the early 90s when I worked in a small Family Practice Clinic with a Public Health Service doc in Boulder, MT. We got to see people in their living situation.”
That was Thompson's first job after formal training and completing his internship in hometown Conrad, MT. Thereafter, he worked as a PA in small town Dayton, Washington, with three physicians, a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner.
Working for Wheatland Memorial Healthcare requires “being flexible and a multi-tasker.” While Thompson puts in 40 hours at the Bair Clinic, he is also on call 48 hours a week and one weekend a month. Part of Thompson's extra duties include being Medical Director for Wheatland and Golden Valley Counties ambulance services. And, he is a member of the Montana Board of Medical Examiners.
“We license MDs, DOs, Podiatrists, Physician Assistants, all levels of EMTs, Nutritionists and Accupuncturists. I was appointed by Governor Martz and Governor Schweitzer. Last year, I was elected secretary of the Board. Our main task is protecting the public and medical practitioners. We look at new procedures and medical equipment to be offered to the people of Montana. I also interview new physician assistants and supervising physicians as part of the licensing process. I am also on the subcommitte for EMTs. We just finished writing a training curriculum for a new endorsment for the paramedic trained EMT. The Critical Care Paramedic will have extra training in hospital to hospital transfer of the critically injured or ill patient.”
In his spare time, Thompson acts as Harlowton’s airport manager. “Being a pilot, I have enjoyed this task. We have recently added a weather station and new building for snow removal equipment. Keeping the airport safe and up to date is my goal. Harlowton benifits from such a facility.”
Physician Assistant is a relatively new medical profession. “PAs came out of the Vietnam War experience.” Dwight, although being a corpsman in the Montana National Guard and retiring from the Guard in 2001, worked his way up to being a PA in the civilian side of medicine. He trained as a paramedic at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Thompson eventually took a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Washington to become a PA. He was the eleventh Physician's Assistant licensed in Montana in 1991. Just this March, Dwight completed a Master's degree in Advanced PA Studies through the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center in Mesa. His thesis was on Emergency Medicine.
Many people probably wonder where a PA fits into the medical care system. “We are dependent practitioners. We only work under physician supervision. I take care of minor stuff: coughs and colds, do suturing. What I do allows the physicians to concentrate on more complicated things. I look to the physicians here as my mentors.”
Dwight Thompson has been working at Wheatland Memorial for fifteen years, coming to Harlowton just a few months after Drs. MacCart and Wolf arrived here. Quite literally, Thompson would be at a loss as to what to do if small town medicine no longer existed. “I wouldn't do a bigger facility. They look at numbers. We are here to provide a service. We do need to break even and keep up with technology, but money is not our first concern.”
“If this facility ever closed, the three of us would be really sick about it. All the blood, sweat and tears that has kept it going would be lost. But, the government and insurance companies are driving health care costs up. It is hard to survive when costs continue to outpace income.”
The writer got about thirty minutes to interview Thompson between patients and days traveling to this meeting or that. He and wife Julie were taking off for a few days to see ball games in Seattle. “Julie is big Mariners fan.” Thompson gets a little time to relax before returning to his committed work in small town medicine.
Postcript: An email from Dwight with edits for this article had this addendum: “We never made it to Seattle for the games.”