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Setting the Sanford course: Health care system welcomes new leaders to top two positions

MONTE DRAPER BEMIDJI PIONEER Dan Olson, most recently the chief operations officer for Sanford Bemidji Clinics, is the new president and CEO of Sanford Bemidji. Joy Johnson, who previously was the chief operating officer of Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, is now the COO for all of Sanford Bemidji.

BEMIDJI -- Establishing a community cancer center is one of the next major for Sanford Bemidji, said two of the local health care system's newest leaders this week.

Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, colloquially known as Sanford Bemidji, today welcomes a new leader to its helm. Dan Olson, most recently the chief operations officer for Sanford Bemidji Clinics, this morning became the new president and CEO of Sanford Bemidji.

"I was deep in operations before and while I'm still going to be in operations, I'm going to be looking at the strategic direction of the organization and working with the board and the community to do strategic planning, looking out into the future," Olson said.

Sanford Health came to Bemidji through the 2009 merger with MeritCare. In March 2011, it merged with North Country Health Services, bringing the local clinic and hospital under the same umbrella.

"The driving force for the merger, really, was the board's strategic plan," said Joy Johnson, who previously was the chief operating officer of Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and today begins her new role as COO for all of Sanford Bemidji.

"There was a set of goals the (NCHS) board set at that time ... and the vision for the future was really to become a regional health-care center. In order to do that, though, it was identified that we really needed to come together."

Johnson said there is a public misconception that the hospital joined with Sanford Health because NCHS was not in good financial shape; she said that simply is not true.

"Strategically, over the long haul, how do you grow without working together with your doctors?" she said. "The physicians were already a part of Sanford and North Country was independent, and it was just a barrier to becoming a regional center."

Sanford has worked steadily toward accomplishing that vision, she said.

Among early improvements was the expansion of cardiac care. Dr. Jeff Watkins, an interventional cardiologist hired in 2011, performed the first diagnostic catheterization in Bemidji on Oct. 20 and Sanford Bemidji Medical Center's first angioplasty a week later. This past January, the hospital opened its new cardiology center, offering interventional cardiology services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Meanwhile, Sanford introduced Bemidji to the $2.4 million da Vinci robotic surgery system, a minimally invasive surgical system, added additional staff, and began expanding its network to other communities, such as Walker, Cass Lake and Bagley.

More recently, Sanford Bemidji this month opened a new addition at the medical center, a 46,385-square-foot Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Center.

At home, in the region

Strategically, Olson and Johnson said the health care system plans to continue expanding, both locally and regionally.

Sanford Bemidji recently has hired nine new providers, including Dr. Kashif Zuberi, the hospital's sixth general surgeon but the first "bariatric-trained" surgeon, one who is specifically trained in weight management and obesity.

"We've never had a bariatric program here before, and so over the course of the next year we'll be developing a bariatric program," Johnson said.

Another new hire, Dr. Samar Malaeb, is an endocrinologist with expertise in osteoporosis and thyroid disease.

"That's one of the exciting things, the subspecialities we're getting," Johnson said. "Even though we're only getting just one of them (a specialist), it's a resource, it's expertise in the community that we didn't have before. .. Having one person that can give us that expertise, it's just a whole new world."

Another three providers are expected to begin in September.

While physicians are generally stationed here, several will reach out to neighboring communities as well.

"(We will be) providing access to specialty care to the outlying areas, the Bagleys, the Cass Lakes, the Walkers, even non-Sanford facilities such as Baudette ... our goal is providing specialty care in those areas," Olson said.

For example, a surgeon regularly visits Bagley to perform procedures and follow-ups, another surgeon goes to Baudette, and a cardiologist visits Thief River Falls and Baudette.

Those type of outreach services are planned to expand, Olson noted.

"We're going to be the premiere medical center in northern Minnesota," Johnson said.

Cancer center

In another specialty area, Sanford Bemidji is on the verge of kicking off an initiative to establish an expanded cancer center.

"Developing a comprehensive community cancer center here in Bemidji (is a goal)," Johnson said.

Sanford Bemidji is now in the process of developing the necessary pieces, such as survivorship, palliative care, research, tumor registry, nurse navigators, genetic testing and counseling.

"All of those things are being built," she said.

The next fiscal year, beginning in July 2014, will kick off a fundraising campaign with the hope of beginning construction on a new facility the following year.

"The intent would be to bring all those services together under one roof," Johnson said.

Right now, much like it was before the new orthopedics center was opened, providers are spread throughout the Bemidji medical campus, with medical oncology across Anne Street, radiation oncology on the back side of the clinic, and nurse navigators "kind of all over the place," Johnson said.

"It's kind of wherever we have space, and people don't access services that way ideally," she said. "If you have cancer, you want to go to one place and have all the people there that you need."

Wound care also is expanding. Targeted at a smaller population, wound care aims to heal chronic wounds and preserve limbs.

"If you have limited circulation in your extremities, like diabetics do, and diabetes is very prevalent in our market area, it is a service line that many ... need," Johnson said.

While Bemidji long has offered wound care, Olson and Johnson said the service is expanding to broaden its reach and impact, through, for example, hyperbaric therapy, chronic wound management and bereavement services.

"For the patients who need it, and I can speak from experience, my father-in-law has had both his legs amputated because of poor circulation and wounds that don't heal," Olson said. "It's awful, it really is, your foot basically dies.

"So this program is important ... we've had it for years but we're just ramping it up a couple of notches."

Another goal is to receive "joint commission accreditation" for all of Sanford Bemidji by the end of 2014, which would involve an examination into quality patient care, policies, and procedures.

"It would really be a feather in our cap," Olson said, noting that both the hospital and clinic previously were accredited but let it lapse. This would mark the first time they would be accredited together.

Also, Sanford Bemidji is expected to further engage with its patients through expanded use of its new Sanford One Chart, a new computer record-keeping system used throughout all of Sanford Bemidji. Among the features of that system, expected to be rolled out within the next month, is the Sanford MyChart, which will allow patients to set up and change appointments and review certain lab results.