How Staples, Minnesota’s Neighbors Care For Each Other

Lakewood Health CEO Tim Rice uses a grassroots approach to running the healthcare system, while at the same time propelling his mission to provide quality, personalized care in rural Minnesota

In the pastoral townships surrounding Staples, Minnesota, residents are known to talk. Although some may brush off this spiel as typical small-town conversation, Tim Rice is more likely to lean in and listen. As the CEO of Lakewood Health System, Rice is supremely aware of how his decisions affect his neighbors, as he uses his unique vantage to gauge the quality of healthcare in his community. Then, he looks for ways to improve it.

“Being in a rural community, you really live under a microscope,” says Rice, who has worked for Lakewood Health System for more than thirty-five years. “You might make a decision and have to sit next to the person it affects the next day at the school or at church. As a leader in a small community, there are significant obligations. How do we get the right quality at the right price? We should always be pursuing the opportunity to improve the healthcare that is offered.”

Founded in 1936, Lakewood Health System is an integrated health provider with a twenty-five-bed critical access hospital in Staples and five primary care clinics throughout the region. In addition, the health system offers women’s specialty services, senior services, surgical, and outreach care. With a regional population of no more than 15,000 residents, Lakewood doesn’t exactly have all the moving pieces of the country’s metropolitan healthcare organizations. However, running a rural facility still has its unique challenges, Rice explains.

“We work to provide all the services we can here,” he adds. “But it must be able to be done well. If we cannot do it well, we do not do it at all. Quality takes priority over money. Certain things can occur—like physicians leaving or major reimbursement changes—that can have a major impact on the operations and viability of an organization. One VP might run four departments. Employees and management must also multitask their work, so you learn to be flexible and adapt.”

Rice doesn’t moonlight as a surgeon, of course, but it isn’t exactly a stretch to say that he’s spent some time in the operating room. In fact, after leaving his family farm for college in the 1970s, he went to work as CFO at a small county hospital, where he was exposed to a wide spectrum in the healthcare field.

“If you do the right things for people, they will come to you. Word of mouth means people will select our organization.”

Rice was taken under the wing of the hospital’s CEO and chief of staff, who regularly pulled him into surgery. “The chief of staff said, ‘You’re going to learn medicine,’” Rice recalls. “He had me exposed to all kinds of procedures. He wanted me to understand the patient side of things. I had such support from him because they let me learn and got me started on the right foot. I owe a lot of gratitude to the physicians and administrators there.”

His experience at the county hospital left a mark, and when Rice left for Lakewood Health in 1977, he made it his mission to make a difference. “Being independent and not in a system, it allows us to make decisions pretty quickly,” Rice says. “We do a lot of grassroots type of activities, and all of that creates buy-in. Working on improving health is one of them.”

Recently, Lakewood Health invested in a new EHR and entered an agreement with an ACO, which allows Lakewood to legally obtain information on its Medicare patients. The arrangement gives Lakewood the ability to collect important data and insight into its quality of care. “We can get cost and utilization information and find out how we are doing in comparison to others,” he explains, adding that the program also links coordinators to patients to oversee their care and health.

For example, a community paramedic might make a home visit to a resident who has been constantly landing in the emergency room, only to find out they are living without electricity, or that some other issue is adversely affecting their health. Once the problem is identified, the Lakewood team can find ways to help.

“This approach looks at all of the elements of why people are using hospital and clinic services,” he says. “You may look at it as eliminating hospital stays, but if we’re effectively providing care, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? An organization has to adapt and learn how doing the right thing impacts them from an operational perspective. It is so important to reduce our overall cost of care and make patients healthier. We are passionate about the triple aim and improving value whenever and wherever we can.”

It’s all about the pursuit of the greater good, Rice says. This attitude is the reason that Lakewood Health System has partnered with its competitors and regional
agencies to improve health throughout the region. They work jointly on addressing topics such as community health collaborations, promoting healthy lifestyles, food insecurity, and maternal and infant care.

“I want all of our competitors to be exceptional,” Rice says. “If my child got hurt, I don’t know where my child might be. So even though we compete, there are key things we must pursue together for the well-being of our patients and communities. I don’t want our own organization to be a barrier to that.”

“If you do the right things for people, they will come to you,” he adds. “Word of mouth means people will select our organization.”

Rice works to create the same congeniality among his staff, as well. He regularly meets with representatives from each division to get input on ways to enrich employee culture. And recently, he’s been working with employees on strengthening its
mission statement.

“If it doesn’t connect to the heart of the people who are doing the work, the vision is not as effective as it can be,” he says. “We want them to know we can really create connections and have a positive influence within the community and in the workplace. And you can really make a difference because it’s like neighbors taking care of neighbors.”