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40 years on, ACMC pays tribute to founders

Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Affiliated Community Medical Centers, leads a short program during the 40th anniversary celebration at the clinic. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- It was a pivotal moment in local history when the nine physicians with the Lakeland Medical Center and the nine physicians with the Willmar Clinic gathered four decades ago to vote on a merger.

Dr. Harris Hinderaker, now retired, remembers the challenge of getting 18 independent-minded doctors to agree on such a momentous decision.

"It was not easy," he said.

Affiliated Community Medical Centers paid tribute Wednesday to these founders and their vision with the unveiling of a 40th-anniversary exhibit on the history, both past and present, of the regional multispecialty health network.

In the years since the merger, ACMC has grown nearly 10-fold "but I think we hopefully have kept the small home approach to our patients," said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, ACMC president.

For two medical groups to successfully join forces was "quite a feat," he said.

"The vision I think they had back then was remarkable."

Nearly 100 people, including three of the seven founding physicians who are still alive, gathered Wednesday morning in the lobby of the ACMC clinic in Willmar for the opening of the anniversary exhibit of photos, medical artifacts, biographies of the 18 founders and a timeline of the milestones in ACMC history.

The celebration was one of the highlights in a yearlong commemoration of the establishment of the multispecialty group in 1971.

"It brings back a lot of memories through the years," said Dr. Wilson Salter, an internist who joined the former Willmar Clinic in 1967, just four years before the merger.

The new entity, the Willmar Medical Center, was born on Jan. 1, 1971.

There was "mild competition" between its forebears, recalled Hinderaker, who was a general practitioner with the Willmar Clinic. But when it came to specialty care, both medical groups had the same problem, he said. "One clinic alone could not easily recruit some of the specialists."

The need to increase local access to specialty care by working together was the main impetus for the merger, Hinderaker said.

One of the Willmar Clinic physicians, the late Dr. Lloyd Gilman, underwent residency training in urology in the late 1960s and was among those urging the two medical groups to join forces, explained Dr. Roger Strand, a surgeon who came to the Willmar Clinic in 1969.

"He could see that it would be good to combine the groups for urology referrals," he said.

In an era when most doctors practiced solo or in small groups, it was a somewhat unusual proposition. Not everyone agreed it was the right move, Hinderaker said. "In fact there were some naysayers."

But the newly formed Willmar Medical Center soon began growing, he said. Shortly after the merger, a couple of specialists were brought in who couldn't previously be recruited. The clinic at the corner of Willmar Avenue and First Street, the site today of ACMC's main clinic, underwent first one addition and then another.

Outreach services in surgery and other specialties laid the groundwork for what became ACMC's network of 11 sites in west central and southwestern Minnesota.

With more than 170 physicians and mid-level providers, 35-plus specialty departments and more than 800 support staff, ACMC now ranks as one of the largest privately owned multispecialty medical groups in Minnesota.

"There have been growing pains," Hinderaker acknowledged.

But it was "absolutely" the right decision to merge, he said.

Hinderaker said he sometimes wonders how the future would be different if the two clinics hadn't agreed they could accomplish more by cooperating with each other. "It's an example," he said. "It's amazing when you think about it."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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