There’s a lot of innovative healthcare-related work happening in the South Sound, where providers and researchers remain determined to bring top-notch care to their communities. Cutting-edge medical approaches, treatments, and facilities are becoming increasingly more accessible close to home. Here are some of the ways that local health care entities are shifting to better serve the diverse needs of the South Sound.

Approaches

A Local Health Insurance Product

Finding the right health insurance can be stressful and expensive. Two well-known players in the South Sound health care field, MultiCare Health System and Premera Blue Cross, are in the process of streamlining a simple health insurance plan for Washingtonians that will be available in 2019 — with plans to expand to cover a wider region by 2020 — and could save employers as much as 15 percent off the cost of a traditional Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plan.

The plan, called Peak Care, allows patients to see specialists without a referral, which lowers costs and saves time. The Premera plan will automatically connect patients with MultiCare Connected Care’s Clinically Integrated Network, which includes more than 3,500 providers and practices in Washington.

Through the plan, patients also will be able to receive virtual care from MultiCare doctors if they have a severe and ongoing need, full-spectrum maternity care for both low- and high-risk pregnancies, and extensive digital services designed to make health care easier and more convenient to navigate. The plan will be available to all Pierce County employers in 2019.

The Readiness Acceleration and Innovation Network

Biotech is an emerging industry in the South Sound, and one nonprofit has a vision to harness new talent to make the area a major industrial and commercial player in the life science sector. The Readiness Acceleration and Innovation Network (RAIN) is a nonprofit life science incubator that partners with University of Washington Tacoma, MultiCare Health System, and Madigan Army Medical Center to support local biotech expansion.

Healthcare

Students at RAIN in Tacoma get hands-on experience in biotech research. Photo by Dane Gregory Meyer.

“I wanted to build RAIN because, as of now, if I train someone to work in the biotech field, they ultimately have to go somewhere else to work,” said founder and CEO Dr. David Hirschberg. “With the exception of Urban Waters, Tacoma currently doesn’t have the infrastructure to support research in the field. RAIN will change that.”

Hirschberg is a Tacoma native who wants to see innovative scientific research thrive in his hometown. Since opening its doors in September 2017, RAIN has coordinated with large biotech companies, educated Tacoma high school and college students through hands-on research opportunities, and connected local innovators with the resources they need to move forward with their work.

Scientists and students at RAIN collaborate with other facilities to remain on the cutting-edge of biotech research, much of which is related to health concerns. RAIN currently is working with the University of Illinois and UW Tacoma to develop a mobile device that can quickly detect, identify, and report the presence of diseases and biological health threats in blood. A student-run synthetic biology team is in the process of creating and refining a DNA-based arsenic biosensor that can be sold to the public. The nonprofit also collaborates with Madigan Army Medical Center to study the effects of vitamin D deficiency.

“We already have the talent in the area in this sector,” said Hirschberg. “There just needs to be something connecting all that talent. RAIN can do that; we can help hospitals have the infrastructure to do innovative research. It’s an ecosystem that needs to be established, and we’re building it from scratch.”

The nonprofit gathers people who are passionate about biotech so it can build a network that strengthens the industry and grows the local economy around it.

Treatments

Radiation Oncology Services for Cancer Patients

Highline Medical Center

The new linear accelerator at Highline Medical Center in Burien. Photo courtesy CHI Franciscan Health

In a joint effort between CHI Franciscan Health and Virginia Mason, Highline Medical Center in Burien got an upgrade in February with the introduction of a new radiation oncology unit. The unit, a $4 million investment by CHI Franciscan, delivers cutting-edge care for cancer patients from Tacoma to Seattle and beyond through expert oncology providers and advanced radiation therapy technology.

Among this new technology is the linear accelerator, which uses high-energy electrons to target a tumor’s shape when destroying cancer cells, meaning that surrounding healthy tissue can be left undamaged. Technology like this makes it possible for patients to receive radiation therapy that reduces negative side effects.

Sound’s Reaching Recovery Program

Sound is an independent behavioral health provider based in Tukwila that serves approximately 22,000 clients per year at 14 locations throughout the Puget Sound. For the past year and a half, the clinic has focused on treating its clients — who have a wide variety of mental health needs, such as addiction, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia — through a program called Reaching Recovery. The program takes a new approach to the way a clinic serves and evaluates patients, and Sound believes it will put the company at the forefront of behavioral health treatment in the area.

“The model ensures that people get the right service at the right time at the right intensity,” said Susie Winston, director of quality and clinical excellence for Sound. “It’s the notion of the right intensity that makes this model very special. In the old way of doing behavioral health services, every clinician had the same size caseload. And every clinician served clients that had high, moderate, and low needs.” Winston explained that this approach made it difficult for clinicians to properly treat many of their clients. They had too many cases and too little time.

The Reaching Recovery model, however, changes this. “With the new model, clients who need the most are with clinicians who are specialized to provide high-intensive services and who have very low caseloads — 15, instead of 60 or 80.”

To identify who needs these high-intensive services, Sound uses a Norton-validated and -researched tool to determine where clients are on a continuum of care. Level 1 clients are high-risk and high-need; getting them into the system requires a great deal of community outreach, and once there they need to be seen multiple times a week for co-existing conditions. Level 5 clients have the lowest needs — bimonthly therapy or a medication.

The program, which was created at the Mental Health Center of Denver about 12 years ago, has been implemented in only 10 clinics — including Sound — across the country. Sound is the only clinic in the Pacific Northwest to have adopted the model, which it believes will allow it to become the preferred behavioral health clinic in the region.

Facilities

Behavioral Health Hospital Coming to Tacoma

Providing more accessible mental health care to South Sound residents has been a main priority of MultiCare Health System since 2014, when Bill Robertson came on as CEO. “We know that access to mental health services is a rising issue,” Robertson said. “Pierce County has the highest suicide rate of any urban community in the state of Washington, so clearly there is a level of health need there.”

One of the myriad ways MultiCare has chosen to address this need has been to build a 120-bed behavioral health hospital that will have the capacity to treat approximately 5,000 patients every year.

The inpatient acute psychiatric hospital, which is a joint venture between MultiCare and CHI Franciscan, is the first of its kind in the region, which, according to data, sorely needs the resources that the hospital will provide. In terms of inpatient psychiatric capacity, Pierce County currently ranks at the bottom of all urban communities in Washington — which itself is one of the lowest-ranking states — with 2.8 beds per 100,000 residents. The new behavioral health hospital will boost this number to 16.3 beds per 100,000 residents, which begins to approach the national average of 26.1 and nearly doubles Washington’s average of 8.3.

The process for the $45 million hospital’s creation began in 2014, and construction will be finished by the end of this year, with patients being admitted by January.

New Inpatient RehabilitationHospital in Tacoma

In late June, CHI Franciscan and Kindred Healthcare Inc. opened Western Washington’s first and only freestanding inpatient rehabilitation hospital. With 60 beds, the new hospital will double the current capacity of care provided to patients recovering from acute injuries and illness.

The hospital specializes in rehabilitating those who have suffered from stroke, brain injury, neurological conditions, trauma, spinal cord injury, amputation, and orthopedic injury. The team responsible for such a diverse range of care includes physicians, rehabilitation nurses, physical and occupational therapists, pharmacists, and social workers, all of whom are trained in rehabilitation.