EVERETT — E-visits, telehealth and simulated nurse training: the future of health care in Snohomish County is digital, local experts said Wednesday.
Dozens of local leaders met for a summit at Everett Community College to address the health care industry’s worsening challenges and discuss potential solutions. Optum Washington’s market president, Imelda Dacones, served on a panel of five experts and stakeholders who spoke on issues such as labor shortages, rising costs and access barriers in the county.
“We will never have enough nurses, we will never have enough doctors, we will never have enough mental health therapists,” Dacones said. “Let’s just get real.”
Dacones held up her cell phone to the audience.
“This is the new doctor’s bag,” she said.
Dacones said digital care can help supplement the labor shortage. She touted innovations such as the Hospital at Home program, which recently launched in Snohomish County, on-demand virtual visits and the online Symptom Smart tool that provides individual care recommendations based on symptoms, medical records and health history.
Panelist Bill Akers, sales and marketing vice president for Premera Blue Cross, said 2% of behavioral health appointments were telehealth before the pandemic — now, it’s 60%, according to company records. However, he said, increasing health care access through technology is only part of the battle.
“The cost of health care is an enormous issue,” he said. “Starbucks, a client of ours, pays more for health care than they do for coffee beans.”
Kristy Carrington, CEO of Providence Swedish North Puget Sound, said rethinking care models is another part of the solution. A co-caring model, which delegates a portion of patient needs to assistant nurses, is in pilot stages at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. Nurses are also testing a new team birth model in the labor and delivery department this fall, Carrington said.
“The demand for care is outpacing our ability to grow the workforce,” Carrington said. “We have to distribute work differently.”
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, who moderated the event, said cracks in the health care system have been on display over the past few years.
“Strengthening our partnerships is really important,” he said.
Two panelists — Amy Barto, with Career Connect Washington, and Jose Reyes with the college’s nursing program — represented programs seeking to grow the workforce.
Reyes, the college’s associate dean of nursing, said virtual learning and care simulations make training more accessible.
“It helped nursing get out of the funk of doing it the same as we have for the last 50 years,” he said.
This fall, the college expanded its evening nurse program by 15 students to help combat the workforce shortage. The nursing program now has 79 total students enrolled.
One thing panelists agreed on: no one can address these problems alone.
Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, said she found the panel discussion hopeful.
“The health care system is, honestly, about a tenth of our health,” she said. “What happens in the community makes up the rest.”