A partnership between physician and administrator is the cornerstone of Overlake’s new cancer center

Overlake Medical Center’s $242 million Project futureCARE includes the construction of new campus facilities and the overhaul of old spaces to revamp and expand programs and services. The first project is a $20 million cancer center, which is currently being renovated on the first and second floors of the Bellevue hospital and set to open early next summer.

The vision for the Overlake Cancer Center was created by Dr. Kristi Harrington, the cancer center’s medical director, and Robyn La Fleur, its administrative director. The two women form a team known as a dyad, which is a professional relationship between an administrative leader and a medical leader. Dyads are commonplace in the medical realm, but La Fleur said an all-female partnership is rare.

“I think being women in that model just invites more collaboration, more thought, sharing, and feeling into the process, which I think has made this particular project — and I think what is coming after — that much more meaningful for our patients, our community, and for the people who will work in the center,” La Fleur said.

Dr. Kristi Harrington, left, and Robyn La Fleur stand in their future cancer center at overlake, designed to make visits more convenient for patients. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Dr. Kristi Harrington, left, and Robyn La Fleur stand in their future cancer center at overlake, designed to make visits more convenient for patients. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Harrington said the collaboration with La Fleur and Overlake’s chief strategy officer, Caitlin Hillary Moulding, was something they all embraced. The goal was to bring more compassion and empathy to the emotionally charged environment of a cancer center.

“We all bring a lot of different things to the table,” Harrington said. “We are all used to wearing different hats throughout the day, and I think it makes us more flexible and it makes us notice more when someone maybe has a feeling, or you notice a look in someone’s eye. I think we are more receptive and responsive in some ways.”

The revamped center will continue to host Overlake’s medical, surgical, and radiation oncology practices while adding supportive services that focus on patient nutrition, integrated medicine, and outpatient care. These services are secondary to “the big three” oncology practices, so many cancer centers don’t offer them, forcing patients to drive or walk to a different doctor’s office to obtain services.

“We often find that the patient is so busy, not just with their cancer but all the other aspects of their life … that they don’t really go out and seek those supportive therapies,” Harrington said.

To that end, the team elected to distribute care in a fashion that minimizes patient effort. Rather than sending patients to different doctors, the doctors will meet patients in a dedicated exam room. Patients will need to check in at only one desk. They’ll get their vitals taken and undress once, and they’ll be required to wait in only one exam room instead of traipsing all over the hospital, or worse, the city.

“You never know what a patient will need in the moment, so being able to utilize our space in the most flexible way possible means the patient doesn’t have to move,” La Fleur said. ”They can get whatever they need in that specific room.”

Most hospitals position offices in a way that minimizes the amount a doctor must walk as she visits multiple rooms throughout the day. “We actually didn’t really think that way at all,” Harrington said. “We had all these colored pieces of yarn on diagrams showing the patients’ footsteps during the day. We certainly didn’t put ourselves first — it was always the patient first.”

Physicians’ offices will be clustered at the back of the center to foster collaboration between doctors, specialists, and the clinical trials coordinator. The layout is meant to facilitate faster, more informed treatment for the patients.

“It is also great for the doctors when we are thinking about incorporating novel treatment methods,” Harrington said. “It is a lot easier when we are all right there putting our heads together on the fly; it doesn’t have to wait a week to go to some conference to be discussed.”

Harrington and La Fleur invited patients and their families into the recently gutted space at Overlake to collaborate and brainstorm on the most efficient ways to serve future patients. “It takes a lot of courage to invite (our patients) in,” La Fleur said. “They got to see us at some of our roughest moments, but we were clearly aligned to take care of the patients, and they were there to speak on their own behalf.”

Clearing the second floor of Overlake’s tower meant the organization had to be willing to put its money behind La Fleur’s and Harrington’s vision, according to Hillary Moulding. “It was a huge investment to gut all of that, relocate people, and bring it all together,” she said.

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