New clinic leader hopes for more community ties

Family Medical Center's services are supposed to include everyone, Seth Whitmer says.

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New Family Medical Center clinic manager Seth Whitmer, standing at right, kisses the hand of his daughter, Svea, 3, while he and his wife, Megan, in blue, and their sons, Levi, 5, at left in light blue, and Ezra, 8, center, in blue stripes, greet coworkers at a family picnic for the medical center Friday afternoon.

WALLA WALLA - Seth Whitmer is familiar with having a bit of luck.

He met Megan, his wife of nine years, when she was at a college party he attended - with another girl, he said. "But she was beautiful. It was love at first sight."

Lucky.

Now Seth and Megan - a respiratory therapist - and their three children are living in Walla Walla, as he takes the reins of Family Medical Center in Walla Walla as clinic manager.

"I think I've moved to heaven," Whitmer said in his office on Rose Street. "We love all the parks, there are parks every place. My kids can ride their bikes ... the neighbors are just wonderful. Downtown has such a clean feeling and you can get everything you need here."

His family loves the art, the culture, the restaurant scene, he said. "Walla Walla has its own symphony, its own theater house, now we just need our own ballet."

No matter how lucky he feels, however, Whitmer is acutely aware the area needs accessible health care in addition to the amenities found on a tourist brochure.

Since taking the management position in late June at Family Medical Center, he's encouraged that's just what is happening, he said. "I'm impressed with the organization. For one, it has a strong emphasis on patients and employees."

Some past career experiences showed the administrator that other places can focus on the bottom dollar too much to serve patients well, Whitmer added.

Here, however, a group of "top quality, top notch" professionals is doing an excellent job of caring for patients' needs, he said. "My job is to not get in the way."

His job, rather, is to get the message out to the broader community about what Family Medical Center means and does. The health care-economic crisis is going to put some people through the door that haven't used the facility before, Whitmer predicted.

Family Medical Center, part of the Yakima Valley Farmworkers Clinic's dozen facilities, was originally established in Walla Walla in 1987 as a provider of health care for migrant and seasonal farm workers. Today medical, pharmaceutical and dental services are provided without regard to a patient's ability to pay. Too, a sliding-fee scale is available for those without health insurance, according to the organization's website.

He's been there himself, Whitmer explained. At 15 he went to work to help support his family after his father contracted a "crazy, rare disease" with a survival rate of less than 30 percent, he said. "I started working construction to help pay the bills. Looking back, it probably was illegal for someone of my age."

His father survived and Whitmer used his energy for school, earning a bachelor of arts degree in health administration in 2008 and a masters in the field from University of Washington earlier this year.

He's worked in a number of positions in health-care facilities, including developing a community advisory committee to discuss issues and get feedback, experience that is likely to come in handy now.

A misconception lingers that Family Medical Center is only for Hispanics and the poor, Whitmer said. "We're here to serve the entire community. We're here for families, there is no limit on who we are trying to serve. That's the kind of message we need to portray more."

Walla Walla struggles with chronic disease issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Managing care for those patients throughout the community will be vital in helping grow a healthier Walla Walla, he feels. Getting his clinic up to speed with electronic health records will be one first step, allowing for records to get back into the provider's hands quickly and coordination of care with local hospitals.

It's not a partnership he sees much of right now, Whitmer noted, but he's eager to change that.

Family Medical Center serves more than 10,000 patients and the administrator expects that number to go up as economic challenges continue for the nation, he said. "Either way, we'll play a central role in this community. If health-care reform goes through, we'll be far busier than before. If not, we're still central to the community. Just look at the history of this clinic."

Whitmer is adding his own chapter. His immediate goal is to change the physical environment of the building to reflect the people who use it. "We're looking into doing a facelift," he said.

That will mean age-appropriate and wall-mounted toys, vibrant hallways and complementing accent walls in exam rooms and locally produced murals - he hopes - that appeal to families, Whitmer explained.

Adding the color, pictures and activities will provide benefit, he added. "It would be huge for this place."

And fit in with Walla Walla's ambience, too, tying Family Medical Center more tightly to where it serves, the administrator believes. "We want a close working relationship with the community. How can we be more involved? The future has to be more team-based to improve things."

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