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Reshaping healthcare in the rural Midwest

A long term initiative from Sanford Health to transform healthcare in the rural Midwest was announced March 19, and followed business icon and philanthropist Thomas Denny Sanford’s financial commitment of $300 million aimed at improving access to select and high quality health care.

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A $300 million T. Denny Sanford gift to Sanford Health, announced Friday, March 19, will fund a range of programs meant to better rural health care, including the establishment of a "virtual hospital "to provide affordable care in rural and underserved areas of the Midwest. Architectural rendering / Sanford Health

With the creation of eight new residencies and continued efforts to provide digital resources for patients with a virtual hospital, Dr. Michael LeBeau, president and CEO of Sanford Health Bismarck, shared the positive advancements this initiative is expected to bring the area.

“From our region's perspective it's a great opportunity. It really allows us to focus on continuing medical education,” LeBeau said. “As far as our long term vision of this (initiative) in our region, including Dickinson, it is to be part of state-wide programs where we participate in residency and fellowships and bring them to the region… Our vision in Bismarck is to really be a tertiary care center and regional leader — and with that comes education.”

According to Lebeau, bringing graduate medical education to Sanford Health Bismarck will influence medical education throughout the area — a move that will provide students in residency an opportunity to experience rural health care first hand. The types of residency programs include Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, open to candidates across the country.

“Although this initiative is for medical educated physicians, it has really freed us to invest in nursing education and programs with the high schools and the college to continue medical education for all.” Lebeau said. “It will be a nice trickle down effect that we can now expand the amount of money we are spending and continue to offer more education to more people.”

The second impact this initiative will have on the area is the progression of telehealth in the industry with their virtual hospital. Telehealth is the use of telecommunication for patients to have resources and monitoring remotely from the hospitals or clinics.

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“We think the virtual hospital is kind of our long term vision of delivering care to rural areas,” Lebeau said. “It’s a different way we can deliver care directly to the patients. We see it as a way to support hospitals, whether it's supporting emergency rooms, I.C.U.s or pediatric units. The care is done locally, but the support comes virtually.”

Lebeau added, “We saw a great need during (COVID-19) and so we were able to monitor people in their homes instead of requiring hospitalization. It is an initiative that we think takes us over the next 20 years in the new world of delivery health care.”

The coronavirus pandemic, and subsequent government mandates, exposed the need for advancements in medicine and a collaboration in the technological arena. As a result, many hospitals saw the benefits of telehealth to the industry, with many arguing that this novel technological resource is the solution to providing quick and quality health care to those in rural America.

“I long for the day (those in small rural towns) don't have to drive 100 miles in each direction for a 10 minutes visit. A lot of those visits can now be done virtually and from the comfort of (their) home,” Lebeau said. “We can partner with local facilities and you can get labs locally, imaging locally. Also if you are thinking about discharging from a hospital and you are still not back to yourself, you now have the ability to be monitored. It is just a much safer discharge process for those patients.”

The $300 million initiative will also be applied towards the expansion of the Sanford Sports Complex in Sioux Falls, S.D. According to a Sanford Health press release , the commitment from Thomas Denny Sanford brings his total contributions to the non-profit health system to more than $1 billion.

Josiah C. Cuellar was born in San Angelo, Texas, a small rural community in the western part of the state known for its farming, ranching and beautiful Concho River. A Texas A&M San Antonio graduate specializing in multi-media reporting, Cuellar is an award winning photographer and reporter whose work focuses on community news and sports.
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