What happens when two adversaries meet in health care? In Hazen and Beulah, North Dakota, where a Community Health Center and Critical Access hospital were vying for market share and staff, something extraordinary took place. They decided to work together. The two organizations, Sakakawea Medical Center and Coal County Community Health Center, realized that cooperation was better for the bottom line than competition. So the two started talking. That was six years ago. Today, the two entities are a success story as one of the few hospital health center combinations in the country that share leadership and have integrated governance and staff — and they are gaining notice. They won the 2015 Outstanding Rural Health Organization award from the National Rural Health Association (watch video about the award).
“When individuals or organizations work together towards a common goal there are no disadvantages,” says Darrold Bertsch, who serves as Chief Executive Officer of both Coal County Community Health Center and Sakakawea Medical Center. “We are seeing improved patient care, improved patient outcomes, and in a rural area like ours people should not have to settle for less.”
How this unusual model came about is a story about vision. Competing for the same market share, services and staff produced a lot of duplication, as well as an adversarial relationship. When the prior CEO of the health center and the health center governing board chose to end their employment relationship, with the encouragement of the health center Medical Director, the boards of both organizations saw an opportunity for shared CEO relationship, and indeed a shared vision. Now, the hospital and health center boards are working together, sharing resources and training, and even providers back and forth as needed.
“The collaboration between the two organizations has provided a host of benefits for health care delivery in our area,” explains Bertsch. “There is now a community framework in place to conduct a collaborative community health needs assessment for the services areas so we can develop a strategic plan and a community health improvement plan around the health needs of the entire community — the local nursing home, ambulance service and public health agency. Steadily, we are reducing the fragmentation and waste of resources that all too often drive up costs and reduce the quality of patient outcomes in health care delivery. So much good can come of working together and forming a shared mission. That is how health care is supposed to work.”