It was in 1889, the same year Washington became a state, that Dr. Euclid Van Zandt and six of his colleagues met to form the Whatcom County Medical Society. One hundred and twenty-five years later, the society is still playing a vital role in the health of the community. On April 25, Mayor Kelli Linville and County Executive Jack Louws issued a joint proclamation honoring the society on its anniversary.
The original organization was primarily what would now be termed a "support group," enabling physicians in a very isolated area of the nation to help each other with the difficult medical situations they faced in 19th century America. There is still an element of the support group in the organization today, but Whatcom County Medical Society is about far more than physicians networking. Yes, the society does provide social and educational opportunities for its more than 300 members, but the organization has become more outwardly focused over the years.
Perhaps the most visible of the society's efforts to serve the public is the physician referral service. Patients who are new to the community or whose physician has moved or retired can call 360-676-7630 to be connected with a primary care doctor. Whatcom County Medical Society can also help patients find specialty care. In addition to the referral line, the society's website, whatcom-medical.org, offers a physician search function in conjunction with the Washington State Medical Association.
Many practices don't accept Medicare or Medicaid or limit the numbers of those patients they accept due to low and often uncertain reimbursement rates. Whatcom County Medical Society maintains a constantly updated list of practices that accept Medicare and Medicaid.
In 2008, Initiative 1000 established Death with Dignity in Washington State. Whatcom County Medical Society is the local information resource for patients exploring that option. The staff has undergone a formal training process conducted by Compassion and Choices, the statewide organization helping those with terminal diagnoses. That group also "mystery-shopped" Whatcom County Medical Society to insure patients were being given correct information. The information number is the same as the referral line listed above.
One of the reasons there is a chronic shortage of physicians in this country is the cost of a medical education. Some students emerge from medical school carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Whatcom County Medical Society plays a small part in helping ameliorate that problem by providing scholarships to pre-med students at Western Washington University. Since the establishment of the scholarship endowment 20 years ago, dozens of students have received financial assistance from the society. Thanks to generosity of physicians over the years, that endowment is now self-sustaining. Occasional fundraisers are held so that the amount of the scholarships and the number of students receiving them can be increased. Whatcom County Medical Society also helps connect pre-med students with physicians who are willing to provide mentoring or job-shadowing opportunities.
There are myriad initiatives to improve health care in Whatcom County and the medical society often plays a crucial role. Whatcom County Medical Society was influential in the Smoke-Free Washington campaign and has issued a report on the prescription of opioids. The society collaborated with what is now Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement to establish Whatcom Project Access, connecting low-income patients with specialty care. Whatcom County Medical Society and Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement continue to work toward improving health care and the society's executive director sits on the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement leadership board. As the public face of Whatcom County Medical Society, the executive director also works with organizations like Chuckanut Health Foundation and Elder Service Providers on various health care projects.
Whatcom County Medical Society is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit professional society. As such, it cannot raise funds the same way 501(c)(3) nonprofits do. It is dependent on the annual dues paid by members. Those funds pay for maintaining the office and several social events including the annual new physician reception.
The minds of those original seven Whatcom County Medical Society members would surely boggle at the evolution of health care over the last 125 years. No doubt we'd all be equally boggled at the changes that will happen in the next 125. Odds are, however, that there will still be physicians and patients. And odds are that the Whatcom County Medical Society will still be helping them connect.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher Key is executive director of the Whatcom County Medical Society.