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Joint venture between Rice Memorial Hospital and ACMC is living up to officials' expectations

WILLMAR -- As Willmar Medical Services approaches its first anniversary, the joint venture between Rice Memorial Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers appears to be living up to expectations, officials say.

During its first year, the joint venture invested in digital mammography and laid plans for developing a comprehensive breast imaging center.

In October it entered the diabetes education and management arena with the creation of the Willmar Diabetes Center.

In 2009, look for the opening of an integrated cancer center at Rice Hospital.

"Both entities are committed to working together and integrating services. I think that's very positive," said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Willmar Medical Services.

Affiliated and Rice Hospital signed an agreement last December to jointly provide medical imaging services and cancer care -- along with same-day surgery, which the two organizations already were providing through the Willmar Surgery Center -- under the umbrella of Willmar Medical Services.

By cooperating in key areas, rather than competing, Rice and Affiliated are better able to leverage their resources in a way that serves patients while holding down costs, Holmgren said.

The two entities hold a 50-50 ownership in Willmar Medical Services and share equally in the profits and losses.

Because rural health care providers are in a limited market, they can't count on demographics to bring in more patients to boost their revenue, Holmgren said.

"In order to provide all the services that you want to and to give the kind of care you want to give your patients and to recruit new doctors, the only way to acquire the revenue is to integrate and maximize the efficiency and cut the operating cost of the service line," Holmgren said. "It simply is much better not to compete in this environment and work together. You can accomplish more. The whole health care environment is helped with less cost."

With digital mammography, for instance, Willmar Medical Services was able to reduce the number of mammography units from three to two, and consolidate breast imaging at Affiliated. This move not only avoids duplication of costly technology -- the units cost around $340,000 apiece -- but also makes the service more efficient to staff and schedule.

Holmgren said Willmar Medical Services is now exploring the additional of interventional radiology at Rice Hospital.

"That will be a new service for the community," he said.

Instead of having to travel out of town for interventional procedures, patients could stay in Willmar -- and the revenue would stay with them, he said.

One of the joint venture's biggest projects, the development of an integrated cancer center, will start taking shape next year.

It will combine radiation, chemotherapy and cancer support services in one location, at Rice Hospital. Renovation on the first floor of the hospital's west wing is scheduled to start in February and be completed in four to six months.

The creation of the Willmar Diabetes Center this fall signaled a willingness by the joint venture to consider other services as well.

"I think we'll continue to study other service lines to look into," Holmgren said.

The final step in making the joint venture official -- transferring employees into Willmar Medical Services -- will take place Jan. 1. About 200 employees in medical imaging and oncology at Affiliated and at Rice Hospital are affected.