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A staff person at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center lies under the linear accelerator for demonstration purposes. The machine is used to deliver radiation therapy. The cancer center at Rice Memorial Hospital is one of a widening array of services owned and operated by Willmar Medical Services, a joint venture between the city-owned hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Willmar Medical Services: Partnership leads to better, more cost-effective patient care

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When a new linear accelerator was installed in late 2011 at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center, it was a $1 million-plus investment in technology essential for delivering radiation treatment to patients with cancer.


It also was an example of how local health care organizations are working together to reduce costs, minimize duplication and become more efficient at providing care.

The cancer center at Rice Memorial Hospital is one of a widening array of services owned and operated by Willmar Medical Services, a joint venture between the city-owned hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

Besides the cancer center, the joint venture encompasses the Willmar Surgery Center, medical imaging, diabetes education, anesthesia services and sleep laboratory services. Profits and losses are split 50-50 between the two owners, who also share the financial and decision-making responsibility for all the services that fall under the Willmar Medical Services umbrella.

It’s a model that has brought many benefits to local health care, said Michael Schramm, chief executive of Rice Memorial Hospital.

“It’s been a successful venture in a lot of ways,” he said. “Our organizations are working collaboratively together to improve services for the betterment of patient care.”

Cooperation has become one of the key strategies health providers are using to help them stay viable in an environment filled with outside pressures.

New approaches to care, such as the patient-centered medical home and the shared savings model, have made it increasingly important for health organizations to work together, said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of ACMC.

Competition and duplication are “not necessarily what a rural community needs — someone to win and someone to lose,” he said. “When two entities are trying to do the same thing, there may be some adverse effects on one of the organizations. Together I think we can do things in a better way.”

The joint venture between ACMC and Rice extends back to 1986, when the two organizations signed an agreement to build and operate the Willmar Surgery Center together to provide ambulatory surgery services.

The partnership was so successful that in 2007 it was significantly expanded, bringing medical imaging and the Willmar Regional Cancer Center under the umbrella of Willmar Medical Services. This was followed over the next five years by the Willmar Diabetes Center, anesthesia and sleep laboratory services.

Willmar Medical Services leaders say the joint venture has led to more efficient use of resources and better care for patients.

For example, both Rice and ACMC now have more flexibility in staffing their medical imaging services at each location and scheduling patients for procedures such as CT scans, Schramm said. “Access to services is important. We’re finding ways to get patients in when needed.”

Joining forces has allowed both organizations to leverage their financial capabilities more effectively, especially for services and technology that are capital-intensive. Over the past few years Willmar Medical Services upgraded to digital mammography, invested in a major building project at Rice Hospital to create an integrated cancer center, and acquired the new linear accelerator for radiation therapy.

“We’re making more efficient use of our resources,” Schramm said. “We’re pooling our resources to invest in state-of-the-art technology while not duplicating.”

An addition to the Willmar Surgery Center and renovation of the medical imaging space at Rice Hospital are among the projects that likely will move forward this year.

Rice and ACMC continue to look at additional ways the Willmar Medical Services partnership could benefit the care they provide, Holmgren said. “We’re also looking at other service lines.”

It has been a learning process for both organizations. Culturally they’re different: One is a regional hospital, the other is a regional multispecialty medical group. The hospital is city-owned and not-for-profit; ACMC is a privately owned, for-profit business.

“Like with anything, it takes time for organizations to become accustomed to how we function as a joint organization,” Schramm said.

“It takes work to make things happen,” Holmgren agreed.

But the shared approach ultimately is leading to better care for patients, Holmgren and Schramm said.

It has enabled both organizations to become more closely aligned in their planning and priorities, from which types of new technology to invest in to how to use the technology in ways that are appropriate and cost-effective.

“We can sit down and talk about things and work things out,” Holmgren said. “If we keep the patient at the center of our thinking, then we’re going to make the right choices.”

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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