Freeport doctors push the alternative envelope for integrative health care
FREEPORT — The local private practice of a pair of alternative doctors just got a little bit fringier.
Be Well My Friend, the South Freeport Road family practice of Drs. Kevin Kenerson and Michael Dufresne, offers services ranging from pediatric care to acupuncture to medical marijuana certification.
This month, the physicians will add farm shares as they seek to build a new kind of integrative health center.
"My goal has always been to empower patients to find health and take the best care of themselves," Kenerson said. "Oftentimes, patients say they can't afford to eat healthy, or they're just uneducated on cooking or nutrition in general. So our goal in starting this is to support our local farmers and our patients. Long-term, our goal is to have an actual farmers market in the Freeport office."
Both doctors took circuitous paths to medicine.
Kenerson suffered from chronic back pain and left a career in banking to try to find a remedy. He studied massage therapy and considered chiropractic school before enrolling in the University of New England's College of Osteopathic Medicine.
He graduated in 2006, one year behind Dufresne, a Mainer who studied zoology and marine biology as an undergraduate, but returned to school after growing disappointed with his career options: working in a chemistry lab for a government contractor, and other distinctly non-animalian gigs.
They met in earnest after residency, while working together at Augusta Family Medicine at MaineGeneral, and soon went to work for Manchester Family Practice. Around the same time, they opened an Augusta-based practice together called Be Well My Friend that specialized in medical marijuana certification for patients suffering from glaucoma, Lou Gehrig's disease and the dozen other conditions outlined in Maine's medical marijuana law.
"Today, it's harder for doctors not to recognize that there are a lot of people using (marijuana) for therapy," Dufresne said. "And you can either get educated about it as a treatment and how people use it and what they use it for, or keep your head in the sand."
They did Be Well My Friend on the side, keeping it separate from the rest of their work. But they always aspired to offer medical marijuana certifications and full-service medical treatments under the same roof.
"The fact is marijuana is good medicine, which is why we're involved in it," Kenerson said. "But someone shouldn't have to go to a marijuana doctor. They should just go to a doctor."
Kenerson said he quickly grew disenchanted with the prevailing medical culture — driven in part by the hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt most doctors accrue during school — that encourages physicians to see as many patients and order as many tests as possible.
So last fall, they struck out on their own, opening a family practice in Freeport under the Be Well name, and expanding their Augusta business beyond marijuana certification. Their vision, inspired by personal experiences and osteopathic education, is to provide patients with a holistic service that addresses a variety of health and wellness needs.
In their Freeport office, they offer traditional medical care for children, adults and seniors, as well as services including acupuncture and massage therapy. They've hired a registered nurse, who doubles as a nutritionist and diabetes consultant. They have a medical lending library and, of course, they provide medical marijuana certification for qualifying patients.
Now the doctors, both in their late 40s, have added community-supported agriculture to the list. The weekly produce shares – which are available not only to patients, but to the public – are produced by Hawa Ibrahim, a Somali immigrant who grows on Packard Farm in Lisbon. Sign-up goes through the end of the month and is good for a 15-week season from late June to mid October.
Kenerson said he'd like to establish relationships with farmers who could make meat and dairy products available through the practice, too. He also plans to build a teaching kitchen where patients can view healthy cooking demonstrations.
It's just one more idea for a couple of guys who are dreaming big. They hope to expand into the second and third floors of their Freeport location. They envision a gym. Ideally, they want to enlist as many specialists as possible – a therapist, a cardiologist, a t'ai chi instructor and so on – to create a one-stop health-care shop.
The specialists could see as many or as few patients as they want, Kenerson said; they'd be paid accordingly, with a percentage going to the practice.
It's remains to be seen whether that business model is feasible, but they're willing to try. Kenerson said he'd even be open to a bartering system, where uninsured patients without the means to pay for treatment could offer other services; a designer, for example, could help produce promotional materials.
"If we wanted to be millionaires, we wouldn't have picked family practice," Kenerson said.
Even in 2014, a practice like Be Well My Friend falls squarely in the realm of the alternative. But while it may be frustrating to be labeled "pot doctors," Kenerson and Dufresne believe wholeheartedly that their mix of mainstream and non-traditional medicines – coupled with a community health center's atmosphere – is the best thing for their patient base.
"It's about expanding your thought process to include things that other people wouldn't consider part of therapy," Dufresne said. "These are all just different tools and ways that people might use to try to improve their health and well-being. They're not that far out."