Recently, a man with serious neck pain walked into the emergency room at Friday Harbor’s PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center. Imaging of his neck revealed an extensive tumor on his cervical spine. A call was placed to Tina Hoxie, one of several nurse navigators at PeaceHealth United General Medical Center’s Cancer Center in Sedro-Woolley.
Within 24 hours, Hoxie had spoken with the patient’s primary care physician and PeaceHealth radiation oncologist Dr. William Hall, and arranged for a radiation consultation. Realizing the man risked paralysis without emergency surgery, Hall had the patient transferred to Seattle where he received his surgery within a couple of days.
This story is just one example of the timely, collaborative care available to cancer patients throughout PeaceHealth’s Northwest Network. There is particular collaboration between PeaceHealth’s Sedro-Woolley and Bellingham cancer centers, which both feature comprehensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, as well as clinical trials access. They also share staff, including an expert team of radiation and medical oncologists, nurses, therapists and a dosimetrist.
Hall, a radiation oncologist for more than a decade, splits his time between both facilities. He says that in addition to having an oncologist on-call 24/7, oncologists at both locations co-manage patient care. Each week they meet to review treatment progress for all oncology patients at the Sedro-Woolley clinic; this ensures the incoming oncologist is fully up-to-date before starting their week of patient care.
In addition, Hall says a daily morning conference call between the Sedro-Woolley and Bellingham providers helps everyone be on the same page, learning about new patients, progress of existing treatment plans, and any other relevant information.
“I look at the two departments as one department with a really long hallway,” he says. “We interface as one department.”
Hall and Hoxie, who frequently work together at the Sedro-Woolley clinic, point out that cancer treatment has vastly improved over the last several decades. Cancer detection and prevention has also improved, leading to better patient outcomes.
“We are starting to see more early-stage cancers rather than late-stage cancers,” Hoxie says.
With chemotherapy, precision medicine now allows patients to receive targeted therapies instead of general systemic chemotherapy. The same can be said for radiation regiments. In both cases, this allows oncologists to avoid healthy, normal tissue and focus more intently and accurately on tumor locations, providing patients with less toxic treatment effects. Even the basic number of chemo and radiation sessions has been reduced, Hall says.
“When I started in radiation oncology 11 years ago, the average number of treatments we gave per patient in our clinic was about 30,” he says. “The average number we give now is about 17. So, we’ve about cut the average number of treatments in half.”
Near and Far
PeaceHealth’s commitment to cancer care reaches well beyond Whatcom and Skagit counties. In addition to working with providers at San Juan County’s PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center, they also provide collaborative care for patients at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center in Alaska.
One medical oncologist Hall works with in Bellingham regularly flies to Ketchikan, and in other cases, Alaskan patients will visit Bellingham for treatment. After chemo or radiation treatment, follow-up care is usually handled by their existing medical oncologist, Hall says.
For a relatively small number of more difficult cancer surgeries, nurse navigators like Hoxie refer patients to medical centers in Seattle or outside the area. Nurse navigators work hard to make sure nothing slips through the cracks before or after these surgeries, ensuring patients get back home for remaining therapy and recovery as soon as possible.
That timely, consistently high-quality care has helped PeaceHealth cancer centers receive excellent patient experience scores, says Gurpreet Dhillon, director of Bellingham’s PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center. Moving forward, Dhillon says the goal of both cancer centers is to continue enhancing patient support through programs like patient financial assistance and more. For PeaceHealth United General in particular, he says, providing as many of the same services the Bellingham clinic offers – including telemedicine – is always a goal.
In the meantime, PeaceHealth’s expert team of physicians, surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, nurses and therapists will do their best to ensure their patients receive the best cancer treatment possible, close to home.
“We’re just so proud of the team and the care that our teams and providers offer,” Dhillon says. “We’ve got a great community to make sure that every patient gets the right care at the right time, at the right place,” he says.