Unity Care NW provides a wide variety of services to a diverse population throughout Whatcom Count. So it needs a team that can cover a lot of bases. With the announcement of Dr. Susan Kranzpiller as its new Medical Director, Unity Care NW has found someone who brings the proper training, as well as a unique perspective that fits well with their mission to increase the years of healthy life in the people and communities they serve. I recently spoke with Dr. Kranzpiller about her background, her current position, and her role in the future of Whatcom County healthcare.

Susan Kranzpiller has found a position that allows her to balance to professional training with her desire to provide care to all. Photo courtesy Unity Care NW

Dr. Kranzpiller wanted to be a doctor as a child she but grew up in a rural area at a time when girls typically became nurses and teachers or got married and had children—they didn’t become doctors.

“So, I took the alternative route of going into nursing and practiced as a registered nurse for eight years before I decided to go into med school,” says Dr. Kranzpiller. “It was a second career for me, but my path has always been medicine, and now I’ve been in healthcare in one way or another since the age of 18.”

When making the transition from nurse to doctor, Dr. Kranzpiller knew exactly where she wanted to focus. “I chose family medicine because it allows me to provide healthcare for everyone,” she says. “My medical training was in Germany, where I was living at the time, and they have a different system over there that truly supports health care for everyone. It was an amazing experience, and I feel very grateful to have been able to bring that skill set with me back to the United States.”

With locations in Bellingham and Ferndale, Unity Care provides a wide variety of medical and behavioral services. Photo credit: Steven Arbuckle

Dr. Kranzpiller eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest to be close to family, choosing Whatcom County as an alternative to the crowds in bigger cities. She moved to Bellingham in 2016, employed with PeaceHealth as the section lead for its Same-Day Care Clinic. There were no primary care openings available at the time, but Dr. Kranzpiller had leadership experience and gladly took on the challenge of supervising the clinic. When a position finally opened up, she moved to the Primary Care Clinic.

“Over time, I realized I have this other skill set, and I came to a crossroads: I love patient care, but I feel like I do have other skills to offer,” Dr. Kranzpiller says. “When the position for Unity Care NW Associate Medical irector at Unity Care NW came to my attention, I applied. I’m very grateful for, and humbled by, the opportunity.” After one year in that role, she is now transitioning to Medical Director.

In addition to using her professional training and personal skills, Dr. Kranzpiller takes note of the way Unity Care NW’s values align with her own. “I trained in a system that supports healthcare as a right and not a privilege, and I feel that the mission at Unity Care has always been about providing for everyone, especially those who are at high risk or are unhoused, regardless of life circumstances,” she says. We’re able to provide integrated services for our population of patients by offering various services like case management, community outreach, behavioral health, dental and pharmacy services.”

Area healthcare providers are collaborating on a “way station” that gives better access to treatment and health services. Photo courtesy Unity Care NW

Kranzpiller and other members of the healthcare system are in the process of carrying that tradition of service into the future with a major project that will bring services to street level. Unity Care NW partners closely with Whatcom County, PeaceHealth, Opportunity Council, and other community health organizations to bring needed services to those experiencing homelessness, mental health problems, and substance abuse disorders.

“One of the ways we’re collaborating is to develop a location—an actual brick-and-mortar facility called The Way Station—where unhoused patients can go for respite care after hospitalization to receive basic medical care, laundry services, and hopefully behavioral health and social services to help get their feet back on the ground,” she says. “This is a large project, and it requires a lot of resources. So we’re happy to have community donors, or anyone interested in helping, contact our Director of Planning and Development Chris Kobdish.” Folks can also visit the Unity Care NW website for further information.

Because of her perspective on community health at a practical level, Dr. Kranzpiller wants to share one more point with the population around her. “Maybe people are weary of hearing the same message over and over again, but because we are masking and social distancing and washing our hands, we have had zero transmissions on our site, even though we’ve had full-on COVID patients in our clinic,” she says. “And now we have the added tool of vaccines that save lives, keep us from getting severe COVID illness, and help us avoid hospitalization. I can’t say it enough: at whatever pharmacy or healthcare organization people can get their vaccines, please do so.”

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