New face leading Heritage Health Center

Sarah Sowerwine is a doctor with a vision. And she came to Powell because her vision is shared with the other healthcare providers and staff of Heritage Health Center.

But she is far from new to the area. Sowerwine was born in Cody and her father’s family, including her grandparents, lives there still. She was raised in Hulett, near her mother’s family, and obtained a degree at the University of Montana in cellular and molecular biology. Next came medical school at the University of Washington, as part of the WWAMI program; WWAMI stands for Wyoming, Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho and specializes in training medical students who wish to return to those states where recruiting doctors can be a tough sell.

“I’m back here because the vision, the heart of the clinic is what I want to be available for my family members,” Sowerwine said. “I am so glad to be back in Wyoming.”

She practiced medicine for a time near Lander, seeing patients on the Wind River Reservation as well as at SageWest Health Care in Lander.

She came on board as Heritage Health was marking its five-year anniversary. That anniversary came with some changes, as Dr. Juanita Sapp stepped back from her position as chief medical officer and Sowerwine stepped in.

“When we saw Sarah [Sowerwine] come our way, we wanted to take full advantage of that. She’s energetic and can take this clinic to the next level in five years,” Sapp previously said. 

The health center has predominantly worked with the medically underserved citizens of the Big Horn Basin — there is a facility in Greybull, too — and the demographics were generally adults or geriatric patients.

“We started out to see the underserved. We know how to do that really well. Now we see the insured, the under-insured and the uninsured,” Sowerwine said. “We apply a sliding fee scale, but they all get the same care regardless. That’s what we’re here for.”

But the clientele is beginning to encompass a broader swath of the community. Part of that shift, Sowerwine believes, is because of the behavioral health care provided at the center. Those patients develop a relationship with their care provider and as their comfort level grows, they want someone in the same practise to see to their medical needs, or that of their children or extended family.

“We are starting to see more children and one of our PAs [physician’s assistants] is specially trained in pediatrics,” she said.

The clients are changing more to a mix like that seen at any medical practice, with multiple or chronic needs and seeing to the medical needs of behavioral health patients. Those needs could be because of an illness, a pre-employment physical or regular testing.

Sowerwine and the clinic still want more, though.

The goal is to treat the whole person, whether they need physical, mental, resource or financial help. The staff already works to help those without insurance get coverage, and there is also assistance for those who are food insecure, whether it is applying for food benefits or immediate needs. Resources to help afford medications are also part of the wholistic approach. And so is treating the entire family.

A determination to maintain accessibility drives the center’s staff and providers. In an environment where new patients or those in need of counseling may wait weeks or longer at other facilites for an appointment, HHC sees them very quickly, often the same day, Sowerwine said.

“We know from other great medical facilities that the art of medicine is knowing the patient well. That means knowing the whole family,” she said. “It makes medicine fuller, richer. It is caring for the whole community, for anyone who wants or needs quality care.”

And while the center has expanded to fill multiple buildings downtown — with general medical, behavioral health and, as early as next week, a full viral respiratory clinic — plans are for it to one day occupy its own space.

There are three behavioral health providers, two full-time and one part-time registered nurse, three full-time and one part-time certified medical assistants, two medical doctors, one nurse practitioner and two physician’s assistants. There is an in-house lab for standard testing, while other more complex testing is sent out for completion.

Many of the renovations — like a viral lab in Powell and a viral trailer in Greybull — have been reactions to COVID and were funded through the CARES Act. “They are where people can be seen now, and keep everyone safe,” Sowerwine explained. Those treatment areas see only respiratory cases suspected of COVID and follow even stricter cleaning protocols.

But the plan for the new facility is all inclusive. The behavioral health demand is large and growing. The center has just entered into a agreement with Park County School District 1 to coordinate its grant-funded behavioral healthcare.  Sowerwine hopes to also have a dental practitioner in the group one day.

“It is dealing with the reality of living in the Basin and being as healthy as possible,” she said of why a one-stop-shop of medical sorts will be a boon to many residents.

“It isn’t just taking the time off work, it’s the gas money to get there, taking the kids out of school,” she noted.

And Sowerwine knows the plan will have to be accomplished in steps, by degrees. A capital campaign is ready to kick off to help raise the needed funds. An architect has been consulted and staff is already studying other similar facilites in the region and learning their practices.