When Nicole Ascanio and Brandon Baartman met in medical school at Wake Forest University, they felt a calling to provide exceptional care and a connection with their patients. Ascanio followed a path to primary care and Baartman to ophthalmology. Their journey took them from the East Coast to the Midwest—first to Sioux Falls, SD and then to Omaha—where they have redefined the definition of excellence in healthcare for patients and employees in both their fields.
Baartman began as a fellow—only the third in its 20-year history—at Vance Thompson Vision in Sioux Falls. He was ecstatic to be chosen, calling the clinic “a beacon of technology and advanced medicine in the prairie.” Ascanio, a native of North Carolina, was skeptical about living in the Midwest but knew she could practice anywhere and that it was an opportunity her husband couldn’t pass up. They made the move, and she worked in urgent care while Baartman completed his fellowship.
When it was time to make a decision about their next steps, Ascanio admittedly hoped they could move back east, but Baartman didn’t want to leave Vance Thompson Vision. As a compromise, Baartman was given the opportunity to open a Vance Thompson practice in Omaha—a rarity in a field where the norm is buying someone out or starting completely on your own. For Ascanio, if they were going to put down roots, she wanted to make sure it was in a place they felt was safe, a good fit for raising a family, and a direct flight to her hometown of Charlotte, NC. Omaha checked all the boxes.
Baartman found a space in central Omaha to open his clinic, and Ascanio quickly found a job with a large medical center as a primary care provider at a local clinic. Unfortunately, she quickly experienced the downside to corporate medicine. “I really liked the outpatient family practice, especially at first when I had fewer patients and could spend more time with them. But as my practice grew, patients were rushed in and out, and I couldn’t spend the time with them they needed.” She grew increasingly frustrated with the demands for productivity, often having to fit 25 patients in a day with an average of only 5-7 minutes per patient. Not nearly enough time to cover every aspect needed for excellent care, let alone getting to know her patients. “Most people don’t understand how poor their primary care really is, and not because their doctor doesn’t want to provide excellent care—it’s just so under the corporate setting,” she said.
Meanwhile, Ascanio experienced her husband’s culture at Vance Thompson Vision, which was focused on empowerment. “Every single one of our employees are authorized to spend up to $100 a day on patients any way they want,” Baartman said. This could include sending flowers for a patient’s anniversary or having a cake ready for a patient’s birthday when they come in for their appointment. “A great patient experience naturally follows a great employee experience,” he added.
Ascanio soon found herself at a crossroads: give in to the corporate medicine model or leave and go off on her own. The pull to be able to spend the time needed with her patients outweighed the guaranteed income, and she wanted what her husband had—to love going to work every day. “It was a scary jump, but I didn’t want to end up burned out like so many physicians do today,” she said. “People deserve time with their doctor, comprehensive and personalized care, and treatment plans that are decided by a doctor, not insurance companies.”
The summer of 2020 Ascanio launched her direct primary care practice, aspireMD, sharing space in her husband’s new location at Vance Thompson Vision near I-80 and L Street. Unlike “concierge medicine” that typically has costly membership rates and also bills insurance, aspireMD offers affordable monthly plans for individuals, spouses, and families. There are no co-pays or bills for visits, and visits are unlimited. Patients also have access to a texting app that allows for quick communication directly with Ascanio—not a nurse or admin. The only additional costs are for labs, but patients receive wholesale pricing. For example, an advanced lipid panel, which insurance often doesn’t cover, may cost a patient up to $200. At aspireMD, it only costs $18.
Being an aspireMD patient is not a replacement to your health insurance, which you would still use for specialists, surgeries, hospitalizations, etc. But since most people start with their primary care provider for medical issues, Ascanio can spend more time with a patient—45 minutes on average—to gain a thorough understanding and better outcome. She will eventually limit the number of patients she has so she can always spend the time needed with them. “What I’m doing should be the standard of primary care for everyone,” she said. “If I can provide better care, which results in healthier patients, then they will have fewer specialist, urgent or emergency room visits. My patients are happier, and I’m happier.”
Finally sharing that vision with her husband has been a dream come true. The couple said it’s hard to find physicians who truly love their job and are fulfilled by it, stating, “we both have that feeling now.” Baartman enjoys the specialized vision correction and restoration he provides, which includes cataract and advanced cataract surgery, laser vision corrections, corneal transplant, and glaucoma surgery. One of his best days was performing his father’s cataract surgery. “A lot of ophthalmologists can perform cataract surgery and LASIK, but we really pride ourselves on having the best technology and an experience that is second to none. I feel like I was born to do this, and I think that feeling is shared by our whole team.”
The aging population needs a lot of eye care, and Baartman said there is a shortage of ophthalmologists in Omaha, which makes working together as an eye care system important. “We’ve created a world-class research center utilizing technology devices where patients can participate in research opportunities,” he said. “We’ve developed a collaborative eye care community and get most of our patients through partnerships with local primary eye care providers.” Baartman works closely with Dr. John Goertz and Dr. Kristen Walton, the in-house optometrists who recommend him for surgery when needed.
Now that Ascanio and Baartman have lived in Omaha for a few years, they definitely feel like it’s become home. One of the best parts is having time to spend with their four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, whether it’s simply eating dinner together or going to a park. They have both found a path that aligns with their “why” for going into medicine—a better patient experience. And that patient experience starts with asking the simple question: “how can I make someone happy today?”