Rural dermatologist commits to helping those who have difficulty finding care

March 1, 2011

Dermatologist Carl R. Thornfeldt, M.D., has plenty of options. He could work in academia or make more money working for corporate America. Instead, he chooses to practice in Fruitland, Idaho, a town of about 3,000 located 57 miles west of Boise.

Key Points

Dermatologist Carl R. Thornfeldt, M.D., has plenty of options. He could work in academia or make more money working for corporate America. Instead, he chooses to practice in Fruitland, Idaho, a town of about 3,000 located 57 miles west of Boise.

"I'm the only full-time derm for seven counties, covering 30,000 square miles," Dr. Thornfeldt says.

Thick-skinned

Dr. Thornfeldt has more patients than he can reasonably handle, but he loves what he does.

"I'm really needed out here. Every week I have somebody say, 'Doctor, we're so happy there's a specialist out here taking care of our needs,'" he says.

The nearest medical specialists are in Boise or Nampa, Idaho, about 42 miles east.

"About a third of my patients travel more than 75 miles each way to come see me. They come a long way because where I practice is ranching, farming, agribusiness, logging, mining, etc. It's outdoor, hardworking people," he says.

A desert area 2,300 feet above sea level, Fruitland and surrounding towns are home to many with skin cancer, according to Dr. Thornfeldt. Full-body scans are a must with dermatology appointments. The dermatologist also encounters a high incidence of chronic skin diseases.

"It's gratifying to be able to be thorough and discover conditions that people have had for many years. Many have been told by doctors that there wasn't anything that could be done," Dr. Thornfeldt says. "I get my thrills out of getting people cleared."

In nearly three decades of practice, Dr. Thornfeldt has taken a break from work for two weeks or more twice. Both were disasters, he says.

"I get quite a few emergency department calls and quite a few calls from other doctors. We are in a doctor-deficient area, so all the doctors are working hard," he says. "It's difficult to recruit specialists to these areas. Fortunately, I have a couple of good friends (nearby) in Idaho who have been supportive in covering for me when I am gone. Otherwise, it would be impossible for me to get away."

Small town, big business

Dr. Thornfeldt is a rural doctor with big-city business savvy. He has 22 U.S. patents and is president of Episciences, a skincare research institute based in Boise, and makers of the Epionce skincare line. He also co-authored the book The New Ideal in Skin Health: Separating Fact from Fiction (Allured Books, 2010).

All are the result of a career grounded in basic and clinical research.

"I believe that all Americans deserve to have an optimally functioning skin, the healthiest skin possible," he says.

According to Dr. Thornfeldt, decades of research and millions of his own and corporate dollars invested have revealed that abnormal skin barrier and chronic inflammation are to blame for many skin conditions, from cancer to aging.

Dr. Thornfeldt says his research has led him to consider academic dermatology, but his commitment to rural practice overwhelms those thoughts.

"I've had opportunities. But it came down to, why am I a physician?" he says. "I'm gratified to help the person who has difficulty getting help."