Community member profile: Dr. Jeffrey Daniels

By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – Dr. Jeffrey Daniels peers over blue-rimmed glasses, examining the scene in front of him. As Big Sky’s first community physician, his steady hands and calm demeanor fortify even the wobbliest of legs in his office.

His is a business of accuracy, of dependability, but Daniels, who wears a trimmed moustache and often jeans to the office, also knows how to relax. In his down time, he shoots pool and runs marathons.

With two office locations – one in the Big Sky Resort Ski Patrol building, one on the second floor of the RJS building above Grizzly Outfitters in Big Sky Town Center – Daniels and his staff at the Medical Clinic of Big Sky address a number of medical issues. Between the two locales, MCBS sees patients in nine rooms and two X-ray suites.

MCBS is at once a family practice and an urgent care emergency medical facility with a focus on sports medicine. Daniels and his staff are prepared to treat acute snow-sports injuries, draw blood, vaccinate and perform drug testing, strep tests and physicals, among other treatments. They’ve been doing so for more than two decades.

“I’ve been a patient of Jeff’s on and off for the 21 years I’ve lived here,” said Mark Robin who, along with his wife Jackie, owns Big Sky’s Hungry Moose Market and Deli. “I’ve always trusted his judgment and [his diagnoses] have always been right on and he’s saved me many trips to Bozeman.”

The landscape has changed in Big Sky and for Daniels since moving here from New York City in 1994 with his wife Evelyn and son Eric. As a successful allergist with a primary care practice in Manhattan, Daniels says he wanted a change and when he visited Big Sky for a medical conference in December 1992, he fell in love with the area.

Daniels noted at the time that there was no medical facility or practitioner to speak of, and saw a void he could fill. Ski patrol told him they transported injured skiers 60 miles to Bozeman for treatment.

“I said, ‘If I was in New York and you told me to go 60 miles, I’d be in two other states,’” said Daniels, who turns 64 on Feb. 19. After convincing his family that a move from the big city to the big mountains was the right one, he worked out a deal with John Kircher of Boyne Resorts to open a practice on the hill.

And he began in the Mercedes that delivered him to Big Sky.

“We went gung-ho into it,” Daniels said. “I worked out of my car for the first six weeks because the first office hadn’t been completed yet.”

For three years, Daniels operated MCBS under the Gondola One housing unit in the resort’s base area, but once construction began on the Summit Hotel building, the clinic was moved to Snowcrest Lodge and then to a doublewide trailer in what is now the free-skier parking lot. In 1998 MCBS relocated again, this time to its current home in the ski patrol building at the resort. Through these changes, the patrol moved along with the clinic.

“My philosophy was [that] the practice would be successful if we were next to the ski patrol first-aid area,” he said. “That’s just common sense.”

In 2005, Daniels negotiated a lease for a second clinic space in the RJS building that was being completed. This clinic now operates year round, while the on-mountain location props its doors open during each ski season.

The connection Daniels has with his patients is evident, and intimate as one might expect from a small-town community physician.

“Jeff is a very intelligent guy and he’s very thorough,” Robin said. “It doesn’t matter what time of day or night it is. He’ll even come by your house if he needs to.”

A low overhead

MCBS prides itself on its ability to provide quality and affordable healthcare for the Big Sky community. One way Daniels does this is through a unique program that gives up to 70 medical students each year the ability to learn the practice of medicine in Big Sky.

In 1998, Daniels began contacting medical schools across the country to see if fourth-year medical students would be interested in formal electives or residencies. He received 12 responses and divided them up over the 1998-1999 ski season, and 20 the next winter.

Students at first stayed with Big Sky community members before Daniels built a guest cabin adjacent to his house. Over the years, the program expanded to include summer interns, residents and fellows who take a fourth, formal year in school studying sports medicine.

Every ski season, from December-April, between 10-12 students and residents each month complete the program. More than 700 medical students, residents and fellows have been involved since 1998, and these days Daniels says he gets 200-300 applications per year.

These physicians-in-training work gratis while learning under Daniels, allowing MCBS to keep a low overhead while maintaining a high level of patient care. Big Sky Resort, as a partner, offers the students temporary ski passes to use during downtime.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Daniels says. “Ninety-nine percent of the patients love having the interaction with the students and residents, and it allows me to have somebody [attend to] a patient immediately.”

Along with the student/resident program, Daniels developed a complex electronic database that allows immediate access to patient records. The school of thought five years ago, Daniels says, was that if you were a doctor over the age of 55, there was no reason to switch from paper to an electronic records-keeping system.

The new system, called MacPractice, works alongside the FileMaker Pro database Daniels customized 15 years ago, and stores patient history, generates billing, keeps staff hours and files accounts receivable.

“Doc couldn’t afford the big institutional systems, so he built his own,” says Tim Flynn, MCBS’ business manager, about Daniels’ FileMaker Pro database. “It’s part of the infrastructure that makes up the affordable part of the service he delivers.”

Daniels is also willing to incur some of the costs for community members without insurance. “There are the haves and the have-nots,” he says. “And I always felt that if you were not making a ton of money…the kids around here, we’ll always take it easy on them.”

In a deal with Boyne to garnish employees’ wages for treatment, MCBS can spread out some medical costs over a number of paychecks, making healthcare more affordable for hourly workers.

Developing each database system took energy and time, but the results saved effort on the back end, Daniels says. It seems energy is something the doctor stores away and with a new medical facility slated to open in Town Center next fall – Bozeman Deaconess Health Services’ Big Sky Medical Center – Daniels says he has the stamina to maintain his practice.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that big a deal,” he says. “Our business has been growing, and we’ll continue to exist with the same staff and the same services. I still have the energy to keep on going.”

The horizon

M.C. Escher’s work graces the walls of the clinic at Big Sky Resort, in jigsaw puzzle form, reminders of endless staircases and explorations into infinity. On the hallway walls between patient rooms hang frames with ski pass photos of the more than 700 medical students who passed through Daniels’ program.

Opposite one frame is a photo of Daniels running, frozen in time in Central Park, at mile 23 of the New York City Marathon in 2013. It was his third. To train, Daniels runs from Ophir School to Moonlight and back, which is approximately 26 miles.

Between competing in long-distance runs and practicing medicine in Big Sky since 1994, Daniels knows what it takes to survive an endurance race. He plans to run his clinic in Big Sky for many years to come.