As Clinics Face Uncertain Future, Harborview Staffers Plead For Answers

Jan 24, 2014

Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center is considering big changes in the way it delivers primary care, with clinics serving thousands of patients hanging in the balance. And frustrated staffers are pleading with hospital brass to explain what’s going on.

Harborview may be best known as the region’s trauma center, but it runs a handful of primary care clinics at its First Hill campus, offering services such as obstetrics, pediatrics and family medicine.

Hospital officials have said they haven’t decided what changes, if any, they want to make to those clinics. But hospital staffers say the administration left little doubt of their plans in internal meetings. They say Harborview wants to shut the services down, possibly moving them into neighborhood clinics. 

Nurse Nancy Douglas says patients struggling with language barriers, poverty and addiction wouldn’t get the same level of care at neighborhood clinics.

“They need people that are specialized in taking care of that population,” Douglas said. “Who else wants to do that, too? Seriously, does your average community clinic want to take in some of the patients that we do, that we specialize and love to take care of? No.”

A Blow To Morale

Nurse Nancy Douglas says south Seattle doesn't have adequate coverage from neighborhood clinics.
Credit Gabriel Spitzer / KPLU

Douglas joined more than a dozen hospital staffers and union representatives in bringing concerns to the Board of Trustees on Thursday. They said the uncertainty has walloped morale, and they appealed for a voice in the process.

“There’s quite a few people quitting. In factm I'm even one of them,” she said.

Douglas, who works with high-risk pregnancies, says she’s starting a new job next month; the insecurity hanging over her head was just too much. But she says it’s far worse for, say, a pregnant woman just starting her prenatal care.

“At the end of their pregnancy when they need us the most, they're going to have to go somewhere else?” Douglas said.

'No Intention Of Discontinuing Services'

At Thursday's meeting, officials with UW Medicine, which operates the clinics, said they don't want to talk publicly before there’s an actual plan. But Harborview executive director Eileen Whelan sought to reassure people.

“I appreciate the sentiment that was heard today, but Harborview has no intention of discontinuing services to our mission population,” she said.

That still leaves a lot of possible moves on the table, says Abraham Bergman, Harborview’s former chief of pediatrics. He says there’s a case to made for getting primary care out into the neighborhoods, but Harborview is fumbling the transition.

“It needs to be carefully assessed. You know, the other clinics need to be consulted. And what is their capacity? And that’s why this ham-fisted approach at Harborview to say, ‘Well, out,’ before there’s been discussion of alternative, is nuts,” he said.

Several staffers say they were told a decision could be made within two months, but a hospital spokeswoman says there’s no timeline for finalizing the plan.