It’s worth noting, in the blur of the 2020-2021 timeline, that May marked only the six-month anniversary of the establishment of the Sea Mar Clinic at Sunrise Ridge.
In that time, a lot has happened inside the clinic, all of it against the backdrop of the pandemic and a time of great transition in terms of the island’s deliverance of health care.
Most noticeably, perhaps, the clinic has become a busy vaccination hub for islanders seeking protection against the COVID-19 virus — doling out 3,659 free vaccine doses to islanders as of Monday, May 17, said Kerry Barnes, clinic administrator.
In augmenting the efforts of Vashon’s more high volume site run in partnership by Vashon Pharmacy, VashonBePrepared and its Medical Reserve Corps, Sea Mar has provided a different approach: throughout much of 2021, Sea Mar has and still does offer no-appointment, walk-up vaccinations, giving islanders the chance to decide to grab a jab on the spur of the moment. (The site at the Pharmacy has also recently added walk-up clinics, and all shots are free there, as well).
Those who have been vaccinated at Sea Mar include a large percentage of Vashon Island School District staff members.
“Without the shots that Sea Mar provided at no charge, I am certain there would have been more COVID-19 cases on Vashon Island,” said Tom Langland, who is president of the Vashon’s Health Care District.
But while the chance to be inoculated against the coronavirus has brought some islanders to the clinic for the first time, its broader suite of services and the clinic’s friendly staff of medical providers have enticed others to give the new clinic a try.
“We’re getting overwhelmingly positive feedback from the island about Sea Mar,” said Eric Pryne, another health care district commissioner. “We’re hearing this when we pass out literature at the grocery stores; when we make presentations to community groups and just from friends and neighbors and acquaintances around the island.”
A recent patient satisfaction survey from the clinic, shared by Pryne, backed up this claim: more than 92% of those surveyed expressed a high degree of overall satisfaction with their experiences at the clinic.
An even higher percentage — almost 94% — gave very high marks for the care they received from providers. Those surveyed gave their highest marks of all in a category that gauged how well patients felt that those providers had listened to them — almost 97% praised the clinic docs for doing just that.
The experience of being heard, said Pryne, starts when islanders call the clinic and are connected to a local front desk staff member.
The clinic’s previous operator, Neighborcare, routed all calls to a central, system-wide call center located off-island.
“The wait was often interminable,” said Pryne. “Now, when you call the clinic, it’s answered at the clinic, usually pretty quickly.”
Neighborcare reported in correspondence with the Health Care District last year that it had provided care to 3,670 patients in all of 2019, the last full year it operated the clinic. But now, Sea Mar already has 4,279 patients on its books, according to islander and clinic administrator Kerry Barnes.
At its current provider level, she said, Sea Mar could handle twice that many patients, so there is plenty of room to grow.
Sea Mar’s current providers include three doctors — Thomas Erdmann, Jessica Wesch and Jeffrey HansPeterson — and one advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP), Burdett Rooney. All are island residents.
Soon, they’ll be joined by another part-time nurse practitioner who will provide mental and behavioral health care for islanders. And in the near future, the clinic also hopes to add one more nurse practitioner — a move that will enable the clinic to expand its hours of operation from five days a week to Saturdays, as well.
Telemedicine, a staple of pandemic health care, has also become an established practice at Sea Mar, with doctors able to conduct video appointments with patients — a practice that will continue to be offered in the future for some patients who don’t need to come in-person, said Barnes.
Erdmann, the affable and energetic new medical director of the clinic, described how the community focus of the new clinic works in both directions — nurturing both patients and staff members.
“On a personal level I feel extremely lucky to be able to work in the community in which I live,” Erdmann said. “There is an accountability in smaller communities such as ours that goes to the heart of medicine: trust.”
The clinic is still expanding its range of services, Erdmann said.
“We would like to be a city equivalent clinic, meaning having the resources needed to do most primary care here on the island,” he said.
Currently, the clinic has a lab for blood testing, and an X-ray machine, with staff training coming soon to enable providers to diagnose bone injuries.
For now, Sea Mar on Vashon — which accepts most forms of insurance including Medicare — offers a wide range of services: wellness visits for children and adults, routine immunizations, family planning, physicals, routine health care and chronic care management, as well as prenatal and post-natal obstetrics. Other types of care offered, said Erdmann, include evaluations of lumps and bumps, biopsies if needed and wound care.
Erdmann said he is focused on continuing to improve the ease with which patients can be seen at Sea Mar. More than anything, he said, he wants islanders to feel that the clinic belongs to them. Patient-driven care, he said, is important to him.
“This is a work in progress, and we are still very much ramping up to meet the expectations of our island in a way that can be maintained,” he said. “This is your island and your island clinic.”
Erdmann’s assertion that islanders own the clinic reflects the recent establishment of a health care district on Vashon.
In November 2019, local voters approved the establishment of the district and elected its commissioners — just months before the global public health crisis erupted, and Neighborcare, the former operator of the clinic, announced that it would depart Vashon.
Enter Sea Mar Community Health Centers — a community-based organization that provides comprehensive health care and other services in Washington State, primarily but not exclusively serving low-income populations.
Sea Mar said “yes” to Vashon when other health care systems, hard-pressed by the pandemic, expressed no interest.
Sea Mar’s operation of the clinic also came with a request for a hefty $1.5 million subsidy from the health care district for its first year of operation. This resulted in a higher tax levy than expected for islanders.
But commissioners are now cheered by the community’s response to the clinic and hope the subsidy will decrease in the future.
“Now that Vashon Health Care District is up and running and the pandemic is ebbing, there is a lot of energy being focused to enhance efficiencies and insurance reimbursements at our clinic which could lower the tax burden for the community,” said Langland. “Even though we have only six months of financial results to go on so far, I am confident there is potential to gradually lower the community subsidy — and sooner rather than later. We will need a few more quarters of results before that forecast can be made with certainty.”
For now, Langland is planning to do something that he hopes other islanders will do as well.
“I departed CHI Franciscan at Sunrise Ridge when Dr. Kappelman retired several years ago,” Langland said. “I did not choose to re-engage during NeighborCare’s tenure. Based on the positive feedback that Sea Mar has been generating, because of convenience and because of my high regard for the Sea Mar culture, I am planning to return to Vashon for my primary care very soon.”
For answers to frequently asked questions about Sea Mar, visit vashonhealthcare.org. The clinic’s phone number is 206-463-3671. Visit.seamar.org/king-medical-vashon.html for more information.