Dr. Carol R. Guthrie, founder of the Spokane Breast Center, located on the ground floor of the Sacred Heart Doctors Building, at 105 W. Eighth, readily acknowledges that she develops a personal connection with her patients.
Rather than viewing that as a potentially emotionally draining hazard of her profession, she views it as a major benefit.
Guthrie says she’s constantly amazed at the courage and positive outlook her patients display.
“It’s really a privilege to be able to share that experience with patients,” she says. “Being part of that journey is very uplifting for me. It is incredibly rewarding.”
That’s due partly to the fact that outcomes for breast cancer patients are much better now than they were years ago, she says.
“They’re the most grateful patients, I think, of any specialty,” Guthrie says.
Spokane Breast Center offers breast cancer surgical services, follow-up care, a high-risk clinic, and a survivorship program with a staff of seven people, including Guthrie, advanced registered nurse practitioner Breanna Kimball, and other care coordinators and support-staff members.
It occupies about 2,400 square feet of centrally located space just around the corner from the main floor Liquid Planet coffee shop in the doctors building across a driveway from the Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital.
Guthrie launched the Spokane Breast Center in 2000, and two years ago, the practice joined with Columbia Medical Associates, a Spokane-based multispecialty physicians’ group that Group Health Cooperative acquired four years ago.
Founded in 1947 and based in Seattle, Group Health is a member-governed, nonprofit health care system that coordinates care and coverage. Group Health and its subsidiary health carriers, Group Health Options Inc. and KPS Health Plans, serve more than 600,000 people in Washington and Idaho, including more than 100,000 in Eastern Washington.
Columbia Medical Associates includes more than 50 medical providers who serve patients from 14 locations around the Spokane area. The Spokane Breast Center now operates as one of the specialty practices within CMA, and Guthrie is employed by CMA.
Of her decision to join her practice with that physicians group, she says, “I just reached the limit of my willingness to be a business owner. I think by and large it’s gone a lot better than I thought it would.”
She says the transition has freed her up to focus exclusively on her patients, and she adds that she now has a tighter affiliation with Group Health, although she also has a lot of patients who aren’t covered by Group Health.
Guthrie says she spends two days a week at the practice’s offices and two days a week in surgery, and performs around 500 surgeries a year. She says her patients have ranged in age from 18 to 101.
Reflecting on how her patient load is trending, she says, “I think in general my volume just keeps going up.”
Spokane Breast Center provides each patient with a comprehensive treatment plan for breast concerns. As the medical director for the center, and in a separate affiliate role as director of the breast section for the Providence Regional Cancer Center here, Guthrie meets with other members of a multidisciplinary team to develop a full treatment plan for each patient.
That role with Providence, she says, “has allowed me to focus on the breast cancer experience for all women being treated in the Providence system. We instituted weekly multidisciplinary conferences where each woman’s case is presented to a panel of breast specialists including medical and radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, geneticists, plastic surgeons, research nurses, and tumor registry.”
She adds, “I believe my patients have the perfect mix of personalized care while maintaining access to resources usually available only at academic centers.”
Through its high-risk clinic, the center evaluates women who may be—or are at—high risk for developing breast cancer. Each woman is screened to identify risk factors, scheduled for genetic testing if appropriate, and provided risk-reduction strategies.
Through a surveillance and survivor risk-reduction program, the center also seeks to ensure that each woman receives appropriate follow-up care throughout her lifetime. That effort includes annual breast exams, mammogram reviews, and strategies to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and to improve survival.
Though clearly passionate now and dedicated to working with breast patients, Guthrie says she arrived at that place gradually through a professional evolution, adding, “I’m a reluctant breast surgeon. It took me a while to come around to it.”
In fact, she didn’t enter college with plans to get into medicine at all.
Originally from Richland, Wash., where her father worked as a physicist at the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Guthrie majored in engineering at Washington State University in Pullman for two years before feeling the call to switch to medicine.
Part of the impetus for the change, she says, was that, “I needed more human interaction and human science.”
She changed her major to biology and attended the UCLA School of Medicine, in Los Angeles, after which she served her residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, in Torrance, Calif. She took a year off while it the midst of her studies at UCLA, to consider her career path, and spent part of that time in Peshawar, Pakistan, assisting in a medical facility serving Afghan refugees.
“It was actually a great experience,” she says.
She later served a two-year fellowship at USC that focused on liver and pancreas care, married Dr. Darryl Potyk, and moved to Spokane with him in 1994 when Potyk, an internist, agreed to join Providence Internal Medicine Residency Spokane.
He now works part time in that practice, while also serving as assistant regional dean for the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho) medical education program here, after having been named to that post two years ago by the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Guthrie initially joined Drs. Lawrence Schrock and Laurie Bell in a general surgical practice named Schrock Bell & Guthrie and did some liver and pancreas surgeries, but says, “I found out it really wasn’t my favorite thing to do.” Meanwhile, she began working with more breast patients, and says, “It really became the favorite part of my practice.”
When Bell retired in 2000, Guthrie says she decided to start Spokane Breast Center, fully delving into a specialty that hadn’t appealed to her earlier in her career.
She says she launched the practice “out of a desire to have a state-of-the-art, yet personalized place for women to come to be treated for breast cancer.”
She adds, “At that time in Spokane, there were no other surgeons whose practices were devoted entirely to breast cancer surgery. Helping women through their journey of breast cancer requires treating the whole person, and I felt a small specialized practice would allow me to know and address each woman’s needs.”
Guthrie says, “I really enjoyed starting Spokane Breast Center and watching it grow for 13 years, and it was with mixed feelings that I joined Group Health/CMA.”
She reiterates, though, that the transition has gone well, enabling her to leave business decisions to a trusted partner, and says, “They have been very committed to maintaining what was good (about the boutique practice) and expanding upon that.”
Guthrie describes her practice now as “really wonderful,” and—of her eventual decision to work exclusively with breast patients—she says, “I made the right choice.”
Though she completed only a portion of her undergraduate studies at WSU, Guthrie’s ongoing efforts in support of breast cancer sufferers—both within and outside of her practice—led to her last year being honored with a WSU Alumna Women of Distinction award.
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