Chisago Health Services President Scott Wordelman, usually low-key, grows passionate about the issue of who controls community healthcare:
"We may be the board, we may be the administration, we may be the doctors operating this hospital. But to the people out there whom we serve, this is their community asset."
That belief guided Wordelman through the 1993-1994 transformation of independent Chisago into a subsidiary of Twin Cities giant Fairview Health System.
The hospital hadn't kept up with changes in its community. Once rural, Chisago City and neighboring areas had become booming bedroom suburbs of Minneapolis. Less than a third of Chisago patients still came from the immediate area. Wordelman and the Chisago board figured the hospital wasn't going to survive as a full-service facility unless it expanded into a regional center. A partner with plenty of capital was needed.
Wordelman, who then had eight years' tenure at Chisago, made sure the community backed the plan. A task force of 60 citizens was recruited to write criteria for potential partners. Regular updates were mailed to 25,000 households. As the process continued, "we engaged (residents) to the greatest degree we could," Wordelman said.
The tale illustrates 38-year-old Wordelman's leadership style. He is a consensus builder, "not a hyper, shouting, coaching type; a Walter Mondale rather than a Hubert Humphrey," said Stephen Rogness, president of Minnesota Hospital and Healthcare Partnership. Wordelman was chair of the Minnesota Hospital Association, a predecessor of MHHP, in 1994.
He learned to emphasize community involvement because of an earlier failure. In 1992, Chisago tried to expand its board after an election eliminated some key leaders. "An absolute firestorm" followed, Wordelman recalled. He convened focus groups to explore community concerns, and the board reversed its decision.
Those sessions laid the groundwork for Chisago's subsequent makeover.
Because of demographic changes, the hospital needed to be 10 miles from its current site. It needed to serve 173,000 people in five counties instead of 35,000 in three. Continual reinvestment wasn't keeping pace, although it was moderating profits ($921,000 on net revenues of
$29 million in 1995).
The decision to seek a partner wasn't easy. Wordelman, who will be 39 next week, has been at the helm of Chisago since he was 27. "At some point as a leader, you need to believe in something so strong that you lay your job on the line to move it forward," he said. Fairview was chosen out of 11 health systems and health plans because its values were similar to Chisago's.
Wordelman always has been decisive.
Consider his first day as an administrator at a 34-bed hospital in rural Baudette, Minn. When he showed up that day in March 1993, a patient was in labor, one of two physicians was on vacation and the other doctor had just admitted himself because of a devastating flu. The nearest hospital was 50 miles away. Transporting patients so far would be risky, especially for the woman in labor.
Wordelman, then 25, arranged for a Canadian physician to cross the border, even though he wouldn't be credentialed to practice. In time for the delivery, a family practice physician was persuaded to fly in from Fargo, N.D.
The future promises new challenges.
Fairview is financing a $32 million expansion to create a regional system comprising Chisago and two other Fairview hospitals. A new medical center, slated for operation in January 1998, will consolidate the three hospitals and 129 beds into a single 38-bed facility. Fairview Lakes Regional Health Care also will include at least five to six clinics and more than 50 employed physicians. Wordelman will be senior vice president in charge.
Wordelman said his heart is "without question in a smaller community." His childhood in a small town (Benson, Minn., population 3,500) ingrained in him the value of community, and maintaining Chisago's mission to citizens means a lot.
"I can see the positive effect of (the changes at Chisago), even though it means a great deal of pain," he said. "We've got staff issues. We've got governance issues. I get letters, saying, `Scott, I don't agree with you,' which I never did before. What keeps me going is I'm really able to see a continuation of a community-based mission."
Wordelman and his wife, Donna, have two children: Ryan, 12, and Brent, 8.