Health center, patients seek solutions
Will be a work in progress
After a sometimes emotional meeting on Feb. 6, during which patients shared numerous stories of perceived mistreatment and misdiagnosis at the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, health center officials sat down with concerned stakeholders last Wednesday to address some of the specific issues with the hope of finding joint solutions.
While the center’s administration remained tight-lipped about much of the closed-door meeting, patient representative Gabriela Padilla-Sanchez said there was forward motion, but ultimately more collaboration is needed for a resolution to be feasible.
“(The health center officials) were responsive to a certain level,” she said. “But I truly feel there’s work in progress.”
Health center CEO Cheryl Johnson declined to address the exact topics discussed, but said the tone of the meeting was positive and collaborative. “I think it was very productive,” she said, “I think we worked some things out.”
Padilla-Sanchez said the patients came with four specific requests they wanted the health center to address immediately. They included offering complaint forms in the lobby and clearly stating how complaints are handled internally; posting notices of free health services, such as mammograms, in the lobby; providing an outreach worker to help patients navigate the complicated state and federal health programs; and finally, creating a committee of patients and health center staff charged with improving health access and services. Padilla-Sanchez said while the health center officials were receptive to some ideas, Johnson flatly turned down their request for an improvement committee.
“They were totally against that one,” she said. “Cheryl (Johnson) said they wouldn’t work with a committee.”
Nonetheless, progress was made as each side learned a bit more about the other. Padilla-Sanchez said most patients didn’t know the health center had a largely new administrative team, who are still getting settled into their roles. Additionally, the health center was mandated to implement electronic health records, a complicated process that slowed services and caused bureaucratic headaches for both staff and patients.
“When we heard about all the stuff they’re dealing with, we understood more why things have been the way they are,” Padilla-Sanchez said. “But don’t the patients need to know that? They should have something posted to tell people what’s going on…. It’s ultimately a communication problem.”
Johnson, who has only served as CEO of the health center about a year, said she was aware of some of the patient complaints, particularly ones involving the electronic health records and the center’s complicated phone system. Others, including issues with the staff, were news to her.
“A lot of these are resource issues,” Johnson said, explaining that a lack of staff and time contributes to the problems, but they’re committed to improving the patient experience. “We’re going through a lot of changes – some of them are mandated, some of them are for best practices … We’re really wanting to make sure all of our systems are good ones.”
Problems related to patient satisfaction at the health center came to light via research conducted by the Todd Trust and the Community Foundation Sonoma County. The Todd Trust is preparing to give away $8.5 million – money that was donated by Roland and Hazel Todd to improve the lives of impoverished families in Sonoma County, with a special focus on health and under-funded government services in Boyes Hot Springs. Utilizing an all-volunteer board, along with help from staff at the Community Foundation, the Todd Trust has been reaching out to a wide range of community groups for months, including the English Language Advisory Councils (ELAC) at each Valley public school, to identify the most pressing needs in the Springs.
“We were very impressed that they came to us to listen and hear what we had to say,” said Padilla-Sanchez, who heads the ELAC group at her daughter’s Woodland Star Charter School. “We talked a lot about the question, it was a very specific question. And, wow, every school came back with the same issue.”
That issue was the health center. In an effort to get a snapshot of the bigger picture, patients were invited to share their stories during a meeting on Feb. 6, which drew around two-dozen attendees, including six representatives from the health center. Most testimonials detailed cases in which patients felt their ailments were not treated seriously, leading to further medical complications, such as a woman who was told not to worry about her cough, only to have it develop into pneumonia, landing her in the hospital. Others had more personal complaints about the staff, such as perceived favoritism in scheduling appointments.
Patient representatives from each school worked together to create the list of requests they brought to the health center. Padilla-Sanchez said the patients felt empowered knowing that together, their voice might carry some weight.
“We’re all together, holding hands. We’re not attacking in any way the actual clinic … But, in all, this is a mutual thing that needs to happen together,” she said. “If this doesn’t take us anywhere, then we’re going to take another step.”
Padilla-Sanchez said, with the health center, the patients were planning a public forum at Altimira Middle School, at a date and time to be determined (the Index-Tribune will publish a meeting notice when details become available). It will offer all in the community a chance to come together to discuss the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center.
Both sides agree that, by working in concert, positive results are possible in the future.
“The one thing it shows is that people care,” Johnson said. “We’re really hoping this is the beginning of a relationship of openness with our clients.”