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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pandemic lessons: Local health leaders describe what we’ve learned since 2020

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 30, 2021

Our world, nation and community have approached nearly two years since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

We’ve learned more about how the virus spreads, who is more at risk and what science can do to bring vaccines. Looking closer, there are other lessons learned on delivering health care differently or more efficiently – while teaching us more about the tenacity of people, say several Spokane region health care professionals.

Here are their thoughts about pandemic lessons learned:

Matt Albright, Providence Inland Northwest Washington executive director of service lines:

The pandemic forever changed the way the world lives, especially the way health care is delivered. It highlighted significant disparities in care and truly elevated the importance of health care workers. Take the best that you can from it and learn from the worst.

Joel Gilbertson, Providence Washington & Montana Region chief executive:

The pandemic taught us a lot about ourselves and our community. We learned what’s important and how much we depend on each other. Everything is connected. Providence’s mission is strong and in good hands.

Dr. Gregory Heinicke, Providence hospitalist:

It was at the edge of hope, trapped within the depths of despair that I witnessed courage and resilience on a scale I’d never before seen. Such an unforgettable experience and honor to work alongside an extraordinary team of ordinary heroes.

Dr. Darryl Potyk with University of Washington-Gonzaga University Health Partnership:

As we prepare the next generation of physicians to help address the region’s physician shortage, I’ve been impressed by our students’ idealism, resilience and commitment to the health of individuals and to our community. The pandemic has revealed health care disparities, and our students are ready to take on tough issues to improve the health of the public. Bearing witness to our students’ response to the pandemic gives me a great deal of hope.

In our rush to return to “normal,” we should question what we can do differently and better. During the pandemic, we adapted to deliver remote learning and learned what can be done through simulation. At the same time, we have recognized the value of experiences that require in-person learning, such as physical examinations.

I am excited about applying these lessons into future classwork. While doctoring is fundamentally about the patient-doctor relationship, we need to learn how and when telemedicine and other remote services can be implemented to optimize care without sacrificing safety and the therapeutic relationship. In the end, our entire community will benefit through better health.

Sajal Sanan, first-year student University of Washington School of Medicine, Spokane:

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we approach health care. Virtual appointments have become commonplace; patients can attend their visit from the comfort of their own home; and they now can see a provider all the way across the state without the added burden of travel time. For those who had in-person or vaccine appointments, companies like Uber even began to provide free rides.

This pandemic has allowed us to learn that health care can be accessible. Patients who otherwise could not see a specialist five hours away now can. The switch to virtual health care has given us the opportunity to expand health care access to patients who otherwise would be dissuaded from accessing care due to personal or financial reasons.

More importantly, we have seen that when we place importance on community safety over our own personal gain, we can successfully expand care to a greater number of people.

Andrew Hill, president and CEO at Excelsior Wellness:

The pandemic revealed stark realities that medicine and vaccination are not enough to keep our community healthy and well. Excelsior Wellness has learned it is critical to continue building and expanding upon existing relationships with our community and engaging with those most susceptible to the virus’ spread. This means taking a community-centered approach to remove barriers, improve access and overcome health disparities. We will redefine health care by looking at our community through all dimensions of wellness.

Dr. David O’Brien, chief executive of MultiCare Inland Northwest:

Throughout the pandemic, we have learned that our community is more resilient than anyone ever dreamed. Despite the physical and mental drain of the past two years, our staff and our community continue to rise to the challenges. Throughout this year, we have put our 2020 lessons learned into action, and our staff continued to deliver the high-quality care that MultiCare is known for. I am proud to call the Inland Northwest home as we join together in 2022 to face any challenges that may lay ahead.

Dr. John Tomkowiak, founding dean at Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine:

2021 has been a singularly unique year for me, the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and – I imagine – for many others. The pandemic has tested all of us. It has reminded us that the human spirit is a nearly indomitable force, and that together we can more easily accomplish things that are hard to do alone. However, our spirit is not unbreakable.

We can and should look for small ways to encourage each other, to show kindness and to give grace to those who fail to meet our expectations. At a time when trust in each other seems at an all-time low, we need to remember that it is through our actions that we show the intent of our hearts. We need to earn each other’s trust back, one person at a time.

I’m impressed with the resolve of our students, faculty and staff at the college as we look to create creative solutions for learning, teaching and healing and bring “first class” to everything we do – all while taking care of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities. I look forward to doing my part to make 2022 be the best year it can be.

Carly Riehl, fourth-year medical student, WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine:

It’s hard to believe that we’re going on two years of the COVID pandemic. I entered my clinical rotations in June 2020, and, to be honest, I don’t really know the medical system without COVID-19. The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but I think it’s important to take away how much we have learned.

Medicine has evolved so rapidly in the past two years, and it’s truly remarkable what is possible when the scientific community works together. However, as I enter a career in family medicine, it’s hard for me to ignore that so many individuals today are living with chronic and often preventable diseases – conditions making illnesses like COVID much more severe.

I hope that the pandemic has opened the eyes of our community and country to the burden of chronic disease and that we can shift gears in the future toward a more holistic health care model that values mental health and primary prevention.

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