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Bring Them Home: Recruiting Hometown Natives to Provide the Highest-Quality Care

August 12, 2020


At Penn Highlands Healthcare, we are always focused intently on the communities we serve. As we invest in the continued growth of our health system throughout our region, one of the ways we demonstrate that community commitment is through our mission to recruit some of the very best healthcare providers in the country to work with our patients. This includes physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses, and more.

That’s a big part of why our Bring Them Home program exists. Formally launched in 2017 by the Penn Highlands Healthcare Recruitment team, Bring Them Home is an initiative to identify and reach aspiring healthcare professionals who hail from our region while they’re still in school or training. “We track that and contact them to follow them through their schooling to bring them back here to work in the area,” explains Randy Keister, system director of Recruitment at Penn Highlands. After making contact with these medical or nursing students, the Recruitment department can then work to support these “hometown kids” through their various stages of education in hopes that when they graduate, they will return to our region and choose Penn Highlands as the place they’ll care for patients. Keister highlights that Bring Them Home sets Penn Highlands apart from other healthcare organizations—while he has worked at other recognizable health systems in Pennsylvania, the focus that Penn Highlands places on recruiting hometown natives is unique. “This is the only place I’ve worked in the past 20 years that does this,” Keister says. “I’ve never seen a health system this involved in local communities and paying attention to who’s going where to bring them back.”

Keister explains the number of methods the Recruitment team relies on to identify aspiring healthcare talent. Penn Highlands Hospitals have hosted senior career day, where students come to meet professionals from organizations like Penn Highlands and sign a form for the recruiters to track them (although those events are currently on hold due to COVID-19). Penn Highlands also works through referrals from guidance counselors, general members of the community and even Penn Highlands board members. They also engage in discussion with civic groups, host shadow days and offer education fairs for high school students who are considering healthcare careers. The leaders at Penn Highlands are also known to closely follow local news, sending the leads they find to Keister and his team of recruiters.

Not only does a program like this benefit budding healthcare professionals as well as it stimulates the economic growth of Penn Highlands communities, Bring Them Home was also designed to deliver real advantage to patients. Several research studies over the past few years have concluded that patients who feel intrinsic trust toward their providers actually end up experiencing fewer symptoms. Dr. Ben Gangewere, a DuBois native who is now a psychiatrist with Penn Highlands Behavioral Health Services, gives his perspective on how a positive interpersonal dynamic affects the provider’s side of the relationship. “It’s much easier to establish rapport with patients you’ve known for years, in a community where you’ve lived for years,” Gangewere says. “These are your people. It’s very special. It’s not easy to replicate elsewhere.”

Gangewere adds that while Bring Them Home wasn’t yet established as a formal initiative when he was working toward his medical career, he vividly remembers the way Penn Highlands leaders took him under their wings. “It appealed to me,” he says. “Years ago, I was working in housekeeping over at (PH DuBois) East. I went to college and to medical school, and every step of the way, they were in contact with me. Even from the highest levels of administration, they couldn’t have been more supportive.” Gangewere notes that Ray Graeca, then-CEO, actually “invited me in his office to talk with me about opportunities in the future.” Current CEO Steve Fontaine has carried on that legacy and today is one of the biggest proponents of the Bring Them Home program. For young and hopeful future clinicians, Gangewere says that goes a long way in actually bringing them home. “To have these mentor figures in the community means everything,” he says.

Each Penn Highlands facility employs natives of its community. Here, a few of those professionals share what it means to provide care at home:

  • Optometrist Dr. Jessica Gruver, OD, practices at the Penn Highlands Eye Center in Clarion, Clearfield and DuBois and next spring will practice at the Penn Highlands Clarion Community Medical Building, which is currently under construction. “Clarion is very near and dear to my heart,” says Gruver. “I’m from New Bethlehem and did my undergraduate at Clarion University, so I know the area very well. I had wanted to return after school, so I’m very thankful that Penn Highlands is allowing that to happen.” 
  • Pain Management specialist Dr. Timothy Vollmer, DO, of Penn Highlands Elk: “There’s not a day that goes by when we don’t see someone who’s a former teacher or neighbor.” As a clinician, Vollmer says, “You feel a whole lot closer to them, and to their outcomes as well.”
  • Penn Highlands DuBois Sports Medicine physician Dr. Chris Varacallo, DO, says, “There’s something special about taking care of the people who watched you grow up in the community where you were raised. Some of the patients I see were once the mentors, family friends, and supporters in the stands when I was a young athlete here. It’s rewarding to have my turn to be there for them now.”

To refer an aspiring healthcare professional to the Penn Highlands Recruitment team, please contact Randy Keister at RLKeister@phhealthcare.org.


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