Olympia Orthopaedic Associates has a vibrant history stretching back to the early 1970s. Our Southwest Washington orthopedic clinics have evolved greatly over the decades, growing stronger and offering an ever-increasing variety of orthopedic services. We sat down with four of our long-time surgeons who have served our patients for decades. In this article, they share their memories of the early years, how they’ve seen orthopedic medicine evolve, and how they provide top-quality services for most of the population of Southwest Washington.
The Early Years
The origins of Olympia Orthopaedic Associates (OOA) stretch all the way back to 1972, when Dr. John Coker started a practice in a small office on Ensign Road, near Providence St. Peter Hospital. Dr. Jerome H. Zechmann joined him a year later, followed by Dr. Alan Roser. In 1982 Dr. Kenneth Partlow III joined the practice. That group of physicians worked together for many years, laying a solid foundation for exciting expansion in the decades to come.
In 1993, Dr. Jerome H. Zechmann retired and passed his practice to his son, Dr. Jerome P. Zechmann, who started the very next day and is still working at OOA. In time, Dr. Coker and Dr. Roser also retired. Dr. Brodie Wood and Dr. Tony Agtarap, both still an active part of OOA, then joined the team. The original one-man practice had grown into a team of four and ten employees.
“We used to do the Christmas parties at the doctor’s houses. We would just take turns hosting because we only had ten employees. If all ten employees came with their significant others, we’d only have twenty people at the most.”
– Dr. Jerome P. Zechmann
The current state of Olympia Orthopaedic Associates was achieved through a series of mergers which paved the way for an expansion of clinic space and services.
In 1998, Dr. Stephen Snow, Dr. Clyde Carpenter, and Dr. Pat Halpin were practicing together on the West side of the bay at another clinic. The decision was made to merge their practice with the existing Olympia Orthopaedic Associates and the team swelled to a group of seven strong surgeons. OOA now had two clinics: The original Eastside Clinic and the new Westside Clinic on Yauger Way, near Capital Medical Center.
In 2002, another merger took place. A multi-medical group in Olympia dissolved and its four orthopaedic surgeons – Dr. Bill Peterson, Dr. Dennis Smith, Dr. Tom Helpenstell and Dr. Ghalib Husseini – merged with Olympia Orthopaedic Associates, adding the Tumwater Clinic on on Mottman Road. In just a few short years, OOA had grown to include three clinics and 11 surgeons.
“What coalesced this group was that we did grand rounds on Friday morning,” says Dr. Zechmann. “You had to bring your own films because nothing was digital. You got to know all the surgeons in town and you got to learn from each other. It was a great way of bringing the town together in terms of collegiality and we got to know who we would be happy with in terms of working with.”
“The merging of surgeon groups really changed the orthopedic culture of the town from being one of competition into an inclusive, cooperative group,” shares Dr. Wood. By doing so, we have been able to leverage more services for patients and it has made us more of a musculoskeletal outreach rather than strictly orthopaedics.”
The merging of multiple practices allowed the business to grow to the point of offering community residents full-service care. “The most significant thing thing that happened when we coalesced into one group was that we went beyond just practicing orthopaedics,” says Dr. Helpenstell. “Now, we have a large business with our own x-ray machines, MRI machines, physiotherapy department, a bracing, casting and durable medical equipment department, and, most importantly, our own surgery center.”
Building the Business
In the early 2000s, as the community’s orthopaedic surgeons worked together as a large, cooperative team, they found a clear vision for the future of the clinic. They pooled resources and leveraged their individual strengths to build a full-service, one-stop solution for all of their patient’s orthopedic needs.
“Part of our strategic plan was to become a vertically integrated musculoskeletal delivery system – A to Z, come in the front door, we can evaluate the problem, and do whatever you need,” says Dr. Snow. “We wanted to include imaging such as x-ray and MRI, surgery, and physical therapy too.”
By the early 2000s, Olympia Orthopaedic Associates had three clinics, one surgery center, and a team of 11 surgeons. But the growth had just begun!
In 2002, the clinic added the Olympia Surgery Center on Mottman Rd. to their clinic infrastructure. It was a bold business move. Dr. Zechmann recalls standing at a scrub sink earlier with Dr. Ken Partlow, one of his senior associates at the time, as they discussed opening a surgery center. “I just thought that was the worst idea because it was such a huge investment,” says Dr. Zechmann. “But actually, having the surgery center has given us the ability to grow and it allows us to get cases done so much more efficiently.”
Dr. Snow had similar feelings. “Building the surgery center was a pretty scary enormous project. It wasn’t an entirely new concept, but a purely orthopaedic center did not exist at that time in Washington, to our knowledge. It turned out to be wildly successful. As far as big orthopaedic groups, we have always been ahead of the curve in Washington.”
In 2005, expansion continued with the opening of OOA’s new Eastside Clinic on Lilly Road. Then in January 2012, physical therapy was added to the line of services. This was important because patients could now get their post-op care with the same team who did their surgery. Later, in the fall of that same year, the new Westside Medical Center opened with more space for a clinic, physical therapy services, an MRI diagnostic center, and the Olympia Ambulatory Surgery Center.
Speeding Up Wait Times
To meet the challenge of shortening wait times for patients, in October 2016 the Rapid Orthopaedic Clinic (ROC) opened which provides immediate care for orthopedic problems and musculoskeletal problems. The ROC serves patients who have experienced a recent bone, joint, or muscle injury – including broken, closed-wound bones and sprains or strains of joints or muscles.
“Patients can walk in between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m, seven days a week,” explains Dr. Zechmann. “They have access to immediate orthopaedic care instead of going to an Emergency Room where they may wait for hours to get seen for an ankle sprain or a wrist injury. At our ROC, they get care in a timely manner and get follow-up arranged with one of our specialists as needed.”
Another impactful change happened in March 2015, when OOA leaned fully into the evolution of orthopaedic surgery and began performing outpatient total joint replacements. Eligible patients can now undergo outpatient joint replacement surgery and return home the very same day.
“We get can get people home right away after surgery,” says Dr. Helpenstell. “If you go back 30 years in total joint replacement, patients stayed in the hospital for two weeks. But in the last four years, we’ve been doing outpatient surgery for total hip and knee with patients going home six hours after surgery. That is a dramatic change.”
Adding Staff & Services
Olympia Orthopedic Associates has greatly expanded their staff and services over time, with our total number of employees now over 300 strong. Adding specially-trained medical staff has allowed us to greatly expand the services offered to our patients to include comprehensive pre-op and post-op care.
“Our expansion beyond orthopedics began with offering neurosurgery and physiatry,” says Dr. Helpenstell. “At Olympia Orthopedics Clinic, it’s not just about doing surgery; it’s about taking care of the whole person.”
In order to care for the whole person, we’ve welcomed several additions to our team. These include:
- One internal medicine doctor – to help patients manage diabetes, blood pressure, and weight loss
- Two pain management specialist – to offer patients pain management solutions other than surgery
- One physiatrist – to help patients achieve maximum functionality
- Two osteoporosis specialists – to help prevent and manage bone density loss
- Two family practice sports medicine experts – to take care of all kinds of sports injuries
- Seventeen physician assistants – to offer preliminary care and speed up wait times
The Evolution of Medicine
Since the clinic opened almost 50 years ago, the practice of orthopedic medicine has galloped forward. Firstly, orthopedic surgery has become less invasive and more effective. Our team has embraced the changes and worked hard to stay one step ahead.
Dr. Wood explains how surgery has become safer and better: “In the past, blood loss was typically significant in the range of 500 cc’s – now it’s down to 50 cc’s. Transfusion rates have gone from 30 to 40% down to nearly zero. The instrumentation and the appliances that we have in total joint surgery, arthroscopic shoulder surgery, spine surgery, hand surgery, and trauma-related implants have become highly specialized and improved. Total joints, for instance, used to last on average eight to ten years when I entered practice and now we are expecting longevity in the 25- to 30-year range.”
Another meaningful development in the world of orthopaedics is the rise of subspecialization. “We’ve brought a higher level of expertise and sophistication to the people of Olympia by subspecialization,” according to Dr. Snow. “Patients don’t have to go to Seattle to find a subspecialist.”
“In the past,” notes Dr. Wood, “We were all general orthopaedists and we did soup to nuts. That allowed us to cover the town but not with significant specificity. So the quality of care has improved dramatically as the majority of partners have truly sub-specialized.”
Looking to the Future
In 2020, Olympia Orthopedic Associates is thriving. And there is more exciting growth on the horizon!
One of our longstanding surgeons, Dr. Snow, is on the cusp of retirement. Looking back on his long career with OOA, he shared the key to the clinic’s continued success: “Our future success depends on the same thing that has been the underpinning of our success in the past: a group of doctors that get along and are willing to put their own needs on the back burner for the good of the group. And, of course, an incredible administrative team! Those are the magic ingredients.”
At Olympia Orthopedics Clinic, it’s not just about doing surgery; it’s about taking care of the whole person.
– Dr. Helpenstell