North County

Aspiring Family Physicians Make Big Difference in Santa Maria

BY KARA SHOEMAKER | July 19, 2021

Creating a safety net for the many diverse communities of Santa Barbara County is at the heart of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s mission. One way we do this is through grantmaking, awarding funds to organizations that play a critical role in making life better for all. Over time, these investments make a big impact.

One example is a $250,000 grant awarded to Santa Maria’s Marian Regional Medical Center in 2013 to support the launch of their Family Medicine Residency Program.

“There is a deficiency in the country, but specifically here in Santa Maria, in primary care physicians. We saw a few years ago that a lot of our family practitioners were getting ready to retire. So the mission was to grow our own residents to replace them,” said Dr. Chuck Merrill, Chief Medical Officer and Designated Institutional Official, DIO, at Marian Regional Medical Center.

Family Practitioners are the majority of Primary Care Providers, and play an important role in the health care system. They care for families – everyone from newborn infants to the elderly – in both inpatient and outpatient settings. They offer preventive care, along with the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of conditions and diseases and make referrals to specialists when needed.

“You really need primary care doctors at the core of your healthcare system, or it breaks down,” continued Dr. Merrill. “We’ve had a remarkably successful residency program. All 28 graduates have passed their boards on the first try, 25 have stayed in California, and 50% of graduates have stayed in this community! So we’ve successfully done what we set out to do, which is grow good doctors who are going to be the young physicians who will care for us when we get old.”

Serving the Vulnerable

These aspiring family physicians are also providing vital services to the Santa Maria community during their residency, including serving the most vulnerable. One way they do this is through Street Medicine.

“Street Medicine lives only within the Family Medicine Residency program. Street Medicine is designed to go into the street to find people who have been neglected, or who do not have access to health care, and we provide health care for them. We try to get them appointments when they need it, vaccinations when they need it – and not just COVID vaccinations,” said Dr. Merrill.

Another vulnerable group that residents care for is the large Mixteco population that resides in North County. These community members often do not speak English or Spanish, which makes a hospital visit a confusing and overwhelming experience. While the hospital provides Mixteco translators to help patients navigate the health care system, the residency program trains its participants in cultural competency, focusing on understanding the Mixteco culture, and how to build trust.

The residents also treat low-income patients and those without health insurance.

“We’ve had a policy since day one that any patient who comes to us without insurance can go – no questions asked – to our Family Medicine Center. We won’t turn anyone away. Before this clinic was here, they were just out of luck, they had nowhere to go. A lot of doctors just won’t take people if they don’t have insurance and that’s just a fact,” said Dr. Merrill.

“As over 20% of people in Santa Maria do not have health insurance, we are excited about the success of this program that provides increased access to the most vulnerable in our community,” said Jenny Bruell, Community Grants Program Manager at the Santa Barbara Foundation.

Stepping Up During the Pandemic

As the only hospital in North County, Marian saw an extraordinary number of COVID-19 patients, and their ICU saw the highest number of patients of any hospital in either Santa Barbara County or San Luis Obispo County.

“Our residents were directly engaged with caring for all those patients, on our inpatient medical service, taking care of sick patients with COVID in the hospital. In addition, they played a huge role in the immunization strategy, manning the immunization clinics early on when we had vaccines available,” said Dr. David Oates, the Director of Medical Education

Residents were also on the forefront of the hospital’s COVID-19 testing efforts, helping to test 112,500 community members. These testing clinics were supported by a $50,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation.

The Big Picture

With nearly all graduates staying in California and more than half remaining in the Santa Maria Valley, the Family Medicine Residency Program has made a huge impact in increasing access to quality health care in our region.

“Essentially, we have provided care for patients in Santa Maria Valley that never got it before, and would never get it if we weren’t here, and this is an ongoing commitment. We will continue to populate family doctors for this community, and others. I believe that the residency program and family medicine clinic has provided a service that is commensurate with our hospital’s and the Santa Barbara Foundation’s commitment, which is to care for the community,” said Dr. Merrill.

“When you think about the impact on the individual patients, when every single provider you keep in the community will be taking care of a panel of a couple thousand patients, the impact is huge,” explained Dr. Oates. “So, when you graduate six residents and each will care for a couple thousand people, you have just impacted 12,000 patients. It is an exponential growth of impact on the rest of California, and in our community, in terms of access to quality care. And that’s the bottom line, the whole reason behind this program is to provide that foundational access to primary health care. I am so grateful to the Foundation for supporting this program from the beginning.”

The Santa Barbara Foundation is proud to support Marian Regional Medical Center and the Family Medicine Residency Program, which has contributed greatly to the health and wellbeing of our communities in the Santa Maria Valley. Learn more about Marian Regional Medical Center by visiting:


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