During his four years at Interfaith Community Health Center, executive director Desmond Skubi, 60, has helped the nonprofit grow significantly.
The center is in the midst of an expansion at its Bellingham location at 220 Unity Street. The renovation will increase the center's medical capacity by 50 percent and provide an on-site pharmacy for Interfaith patients.
Interfaith currently serves more than 14,000 patients, more than 62 percent of whom live at or below the federal poverty line. It has clinics in Bellingham, Ferndale and Point Roberts.
"American health care is in the midst of profound changes, some of which are really exciting in their potential," Skubi says.
For example, with the implementation of electronic records in 2007, Interfaith was suddenly able to look at the entire population it serves, isolate specific problems within that population, and change the approach it takes to care for specific patients, Skubi says.
"When everything was on paper charts, you were really only able to serve the patient that crossed your doorstep and to meet the needs that they brought to you as individuals," Skubi says.
Now medical providers can integrate behavioral health advice with medical visits and form support groups based on common needs, Skubi says.
The center has grown its behavioral health program at least in part due to the switch to electronic records, Skubi says. The program offers support groups for patients suffering from things such as PTSD, mood disorders and diabetes. Many of the groups are focused on healthy living and helping patients form social connections so they can share solutions they have found for themselves in their own lives.
"I think one of the issues in society as a whole is that people are oftentimes very isolated socially," Skubi says. "Bringing people together, I think, is a really healthy thing to do."
One of Skubi's goals for the center over the next few years is to introduce an obstetrics program.
When Skubi first got a degree in nursing from the University of Washington, he realized he liked working with healthy people more than he liked working with sick people. Most people preparing to deliver a baby are fairly healthy, so Skubi was drawn to the field of obstetrics.
He spent several years working in the birthing unit at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. He later worked as a nurse midwife at the Rosebud Sioux health center in South Dakota, where he met his wife, Rebecca, who also practices midwifery.
With the addition of an obstetrics program, Skubi would like to see Interfaith practice what is known as centering pregnancy. The center would create support groups for pregnant women based on expected due dates, so the women could form a network. The women would not only go through pre-natal care together, but would be going through similar experiences once their children are born.
Research shows that adverse childhood experiences, referred to as ACES in healthcare, have a profound effect on someone's life, Skubi says. Traumatic experiences, particularly when they happen repeatedly during someone's childhood, can determine the outcome of that person's life. Unfortunately, those experiences are also frequently passed on from generation to generation.
Interfaith patients have a particularly high rate of ACES. In an original ACES study, the rate of people who had four or more traumatic childhood experiences was 16 percent. In a study of parents whose children were being seen at Interfaith's Bellingham dental clinic, 77 percent had experienced four or more ACES. Based on the research, the children of those parents will likely grow up in households with high instances of psychiatric illnesses, substance abuse, chronic diseases and work instability.
"For me the real key is how you interrupt that cycle," Skubi says. "One of the things I'd love to see happen is for us to focus on the earliest times in peoples lives, and by that I really mean from the time of conception or prior to conception onwards. That's probably the single most important thing we can do to improve health."
With continued growth of the center's behavioral health program, Skubi says there is the potential to help people plan strong families that can support and nurture healthy children.
Skubi says working as executive director has given him the chance to do what he enjoys most: build services for people and see the results of moving the community toward a common mission.
"I think the idea of community really resonates here in Bellingham in a way it doesn't in other places," Skubi says. "It's because people are willing to invest in it and you see that in terms of the health care system and how people are rethinking how we deliver health care here."
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for someone we should salute next year, please email email@example.com.