Monadnock Profiles: A drive to make health care accessible to everybody

  • Siobhan Benham Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Siobhan Benham, owner of Hearthside Family Health, was recently named NH’s Nurse Practitioner of the Year. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/30/2021 11:18:50 AM

Siobhan Benham became a family nurse practitioner because she wanted to help people when they needed trusted medical care at their most vulnerable moments. She opened her own practice, Hearthside Family Health in Peterborough, because she saw a desperate need for options when it came to affordable access to healthcare.

What she’s found in the three-and-a-half years since Hearthside opened its doors is that residents of the Monadnock region saw a need as well.

“What everybody should have is a primary care provider,” Benham said. “And there are people who really see the value in what we’re doing.”

The Direct Access Model Benham provides, where individuals and families pay a monthly subscription cost and take insurance companies out of the equation, is one that is critical for those who are self-employed, underinsured or have high deductible policies. Because for those who have to pay medical costs out of pocket, the decision could very well affect the ability to put food on the table.

“People put off care because of the cost,” Benham said. “So what we’re able to offer is a valuable service that’s really simplified.”

It allows Benham to put her patient’s needs first, she said, and make a real connection with the people that trust her to provide the most comprehensive and compassionate care possible.

Benham doesn’t believe she is doing anything different than other providers who decided to enter the medical field. She knows that the top priority of doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners is to take care of their patients to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, the system that is in place doesn’t work for everyone, Benham said – and that’s a big problem.

“I just felt like we could do better,” Benham said.

For Benham, she is merely doing the job she signed up for, but others have noticed that the decision to do things her way has made a true difference in the lives of her patients. And because of that, Benham received multiple nominations for the New Hampshire Nurse Practitioner Association’s Nurse Practitioner of the Year award and was recently bestowed the yearly honor at a virtual conference earlier in April.

“It was definitely a surprise. I had no idea it was coming. It’s very flattering,” Benham said. “There are so many amazing nurse practitioners who are doing really amazing things who deserved it as well.”

Benham hopes her award shines a light on the importance of what others like her are doing.

“You can change the system and make a grassroots change,” she said.

When Benham was 12, she spent three-and-a-half weeks in the hospital due to a ruptured appendix and subsequent infection, which required daily return visits for antibiotic treatment. She saw firsthand the importance of healthcare.

“I think that definitely helped get my brain thinking about medicine and helping people,” she said.

During her days at ConVal, she really enjoyed the sciences – biology, anatomy and physiology – and saw nursing as a possible career path.

When Benham arrived at UNH as a freshman, she declared as a nursing major and “ended up loving it,” she said, as “there’s so many aspects to it.”

She received both her undergraduate degree and masters in science from UNH and spent seven years working as a registered nurse before returning to her studies to become a family nurse practitioner.

“There’s so much to learn and know in all fields of nursing,” Benham said. “And I’ve had so many opportunities to experience different parts of nursing.”

During her time at UNH, Benham spent a week in Belize working in community health nursing and saw the value the people there placed on that type of care.

Benham has worked at a number of different hospitals – Boston Children’s, Elliot Hospital in Manchester and Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester – and in various departments like pediatrics, labor and delivery, and the neonatal intensive care unit. While at Frisbie, she was afforded the opportunity to develop her own position in women’s health, and she even practiced in an urgent care setting.

“I had a lot of jobs before I became a nurse practitioner,” Benham said. “You’re building on your wealth of knowledge and experience and I wanted to make sure I had enough experience to go into it.”

Through all those experiences, Benham realized she wanted more out of her work. She didn’t want to provide care based on what insurance companies would pay for. She wanted to care for people regardless if they had insurance or not.

“It’s frustrating to access care at the level you need it,” she said.

But deciding to go out on her own was a risk. At the time there were only a couple of others in New Hampshire offering the Direct Access Model and starting a practice from scratch was a daunting task.

“But we all want to go into a type of employment where we feel good at the end of the day,” Benham said. And for her, it was about providing the best possible care in the way she felt would be the most valuable for the patient.

“I felt I was just another cog in the wheel,” she said. “The current system is very much driven on an insurance paradigm that’s not in the benefit of the patient. You’re not able to do everything you want.”

She called the decision to open her own practice liberating, but it didn’t come without sacrifice. For the first year Heathside was open, Benham worked two other jobs – in urgent care and also taught at Rivier University in Nashua. In years two and three of the practice, where she added Carrie Klonel to the practice as a second provider, Benham continued to teach, but now being at a point where it is sustainable, this will be her last year teaching and will focus solely on her work in primary care.

“You have to take that financial sacrifice to see if it could fly,” Benham said.

Benham said she just really enjoys people as “humans are amazing and complex.”

“We have such a privilege when we work as primary care providers to get to know people and their families,” she said “They allow us in, in a very intimate way. It’s really nice to get to spend time with people, get to know them and understand what they’re really going through.”

When she worked in hospital settings, Benham said she would have 16 patients on her schedule for an eight-hour shift with another two to four added on during the day. In urgent care, those numbers rose to as many as 36 in a 12-hour shift.

Now she averages about six patients a day, where “some days it’s two or three and others 10.” But because of the way she operates, Benham can provide home visits, hop on to a telehealth visit at any time and has even gone to patient’s workplaces to check blood pressure. She gives patients her personal cell phone number because she cares about their well-being and wants them to know they can call or text at any time if they have a question.

“It’s a much more flexible way of care,” Benham said. “It works for me and I think it does for them. It’s being able to provide patients with what they need, when they need it and preventing barriers.”

The last year-plus since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been different for those in the medical field, but Benham is proud of the fact they were still able to meet their patients’ needs.

“I’d say because we’re so small and so flexible, it really felt like a success,” she said. But it meant turning even more to telehealth, and conducting COVID testing in the parking lot.

Benham and her husband Joe have three boys – Everett, 15, Bishop, 14 and Seth, 8. Setting her own schedule allows the flexibility to go to sporting events and other important moments in the lives of her family. But admits at times she isn’t the best at maintaining a work-life balance.

“I don’t want to miss too much,” she said. “And it’s really exciting to see the men they’re becoming.”

Benham grew up in Antrim, going to Antrim Elementary, Great Brook School and ConVal. It was eight years ago when the decision was made to move the family to Peterborough.

“I have really great memories of growing up in the ConVal School District and the Monadnock region,” Benham said. “And the community here is very family-focused, family-friendly and we decided this is a place where we could really set down our roots.”

In her free time, Benham is a sewer and a quilter. She enjoys making clothes for her nieces because as the mom of three boys there isn’t any pink and purple in the house.

Moving back to the region allowed her to be close to her extended family. They have Sunday night dinners each week and for Benham that’s important. Family is at the top of the list – and in a way her patients are a further extension of hers.

As a family, the Benhams like to hike and bike, and are currently raising 1,500 tadpoles that will be re-released to the wild soon.

“We wanted to see that metamorphosis up close,” she said.

The family loves to explore and camping is the way they enjoy doing it the most. It gives them time away to be together, which can get lost at times during her chaotic schedule.

Opening her own practice allows Benham to not only care for people – the reason she got into nursing in the first place – but affords her the flexibility to be present for her family.

“At the end of the day, I’m really grateful for what I’m able to do,” Benham said.


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