Published: December 26, 2023 | Updated: December 21, 2023

Health care industry expands to meet population needs

Dr. Nichole Buynak speaks to a young patient at Coeur d’Alene Pediatrics.

Dr. Nichole Buynak speaks to a young patient at Coeur d’Alene Pediatrics.

Stabilizing health care staff and growing alongside the Kootenai County population are the two biggest trends that local providers tackled in 2023.

Kootenai Health

Traveling medical staff helps supplement health care when local staffing has gaps, but there can be higher costs that can be draining over time to maintain. That’s one of the reasons Cyndy Donato of Kootenai Health cites the change was made to start shifting away from a reliance on traveling health providers.

“Our work in the last year has been to convert our travelers (our agency contractors) to permanent hires or to hire directly into our core staff so that we don’t need to have the agencies anymore. It’s been incredibly successful and what that means is that we’ve got people here who have committed to the region,” Donato said.

As the new executive vice president of people and culture, Donato said she has been going over the records of hiring needs from just before the pandemic to the mid-pandemic, and open positions went from 350 openings per month to about 800 openings per month. This year, Kootenai Health was able to stay under 200 openings a month, hovering around 150 job openings.

“That’s been a tremendous change. Through COVID-19, there was a shortage of nurses and we really needed to support our teams so we hired agencies. We’ve taken the resources that we were spending on agency hires and invested it in our staff,” Donato said.

At the moment, Kootenai Health staffing is a mix of 4,100 part and full-time employees.

Another big change to the health system's recruitment practices, for more competitive hiring, is they are now comparing pay rates to those in the Spokane market rather than just comparing to other North Idaho pay rates.

“By comparing ourselves to Spokane, we’ve invested in the wage and salary side, and employees are seeing that. Right now, we’re analyzing our market and we’re planning on market increases early 2024,” Donato said.

A new CEO is also on the horizon for Kootenai Health, as well as a new chief legal officer, chief financial officer, and a new chief nursing officer. Donato herself is a recent hire, so the leadership team has added a lot of new faces in a short period of time.

“We’re excited about a new leader coming on board and celebrating Jon Ness’s transition to retirement and all of the things he’s done to help us grow and be more successful. 

It’s time for a new leader,” Donato said.

Being able to pivot to regional needs is something Kootenai Health considers to be a major asset as health care providers.

“One of the things I’d like to emphasize is I think one of the things that makes us unique is we are in control of our destiny here. There are no outsiders making decisions, for example, in Tacoma, making decisions for us. We are able to work with our employees and their suggestions and quickly put them into action,” Donato said.

Heritage Health

Changing up the patient/provider model was a major part of Heritage Health’s playbook in 2023. One of those elements was finding a way to overcome burnout for medical providers. Heritage Health CEO Mike Baker said that by implementing a new system with medical assistants scribing for providers during patient meetings, it has taken a load off the providers and freed up evenings often previously spent transcribing medical notes.

“We’re providing a lot more support so they don’t necessarily have to do it all. It’s really just taking a lot of stuff off their plate to free them up to talk with their patients. If you talk to any provider, their inbox is the thing that kills them - having to keep up with that. If you’re not in an office with a scribe, there’s a lot of work that falls on the provider when the patient leaves,” Baker said.

A former U.S. Bank Call Center on Seltice Way is set to become the new hub for Heritage Health in 2024.

“It’s a game-changing thing for us to have everything in one facility.  It’s a premier health care model that we’ve been working on. It’s going to be awesome. We’ll be launching the first phase of the Center for Healthy Living in Coeur d’Alene,” Baker said.

The new center is set to open in August 2024.

Like other health care providers across the country, stabilizing staffing during the pandemic became a challenge. Though providers leaving the medical field due to burnout has slowed, Baker noted that rapid growth in the area has meant they’ve also been in a race to keep their provider base expanding at a rate matching the population size.

“I'd never say we're fully staffed, but the staffing shortage has definitely gotten better so that we're able to recruit people into the community and fill jobs. Every health care agency is behind trying to keep up with the growth that's happened,” Baker said.

They have also implemented an apprenticeship program to expand the training base under the Heritage umbrella to spread their practice’s culture and training practices.

One of the unfortunate events in the past year was the passing of Chief Financial Officer Mark Hampe due to cancer after a long fight.

“He was just a great friend. It just broke our hearts,” Baker said.

Sonya Zhang, the new CFO began in November at Heritage Health.

By the numbers Heritage Health

Current employees: 352
2022 employees: 339
Medical and behavioral health providers: 83
Medical and dental assistants: 50
Peer support/dietitians: 17
Facilities: 7

Northwest Specialty Hospital

Expanding staffing to meet the growing needs in the community has been a primary concern for Chris Gregg in his capacity as the executive director of human resources for Northwest Specialty Hospital, with its main campus in Post Falls. 

New locations in Rathdrum and Athol were added in 2023, in addition to expanding departments. About 100 new staffing positions were added this year at Northwest Specialty Hospital.

“We’ll be over 750 employees by the year’s end, which is quite a significant change. Looking ahead to 2024, our focus is our surgical space. We’re preparing to open an ambulatory surgical center on campus,” Gregg said.

The operating room capacity will increase from eight to 10 with the addition of the outpatient surgery center. 

And in 2024, the plan to increase surgical facilities will continue with another two operating rooms. Two of these operating rooms will be placed at the outpatient surgical center and two will be located at the core hospital.

Expansions are also planned for the imaging department as a third MRI and second CT unit at the Post Falls campus.

“It’s a lot of surgical growth currently at Northwest. Some years it ebbs or flows a little more than the previous one, but it’s a very consistent growth pattern right now at Northwest. In 2024, we anticipate being at over 850 staff,” Gregg said.

Allocating more space and time to surgical spaces for patient care has been an increasing demand that Northwest has noted in recent years, and will help in creating more efficient and productive operating room programs.

“With our current surgical capacity, we’ve just about hit our maximums with the ability to accommodate new surgeon practices. The demand is very high in our community. Patients are choosing Northwest. We need the ability to serve them with more square footage and more block (surgical) times,” Gregg said.

In the next three years, the goal for the hospital is to have 1,000 employees on staff.

    An artist rendering of the new Center for Healthy Living from Heritage Health is expected to open in August of 2024 at their new campus on 3700 W. Seltice Way, Coeur d'Alene.
    Heritage Health CEO Mike Baker
    Northwest Specialty Hospital's campus addition in Post Falls included eight operating rooms. In 2024, expansion plans include adding to the number of operating rooms available to expand with the population growth in the area.