'A powerful route to keeping communities afloat': Why a Wisconsin hospital CEO is bullish on rural healthcare

When Dara Bartels became CEO of Mile Bluff Medical Center on Dec. 1, she brought with her financial acumen and a passion for rural healthcare. 

Mile Bluff, based in Mauston, Wis., includes a 40-bed hospital with outreach clinics, two nursing homes and two remote pharmacies. Ms. Bartels took the helm when James O'Keefe retired, making her the organization's first female CEO.

Before becoming CEO, she was Mile Bluff's CFO for nearly three years.

Ms. Bartels told Becker's Hospital Review she is excited about the future and optimistic about rural healthcare. She shared her goals for 2022, discussed her leadership style and offered advice for her peers.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: What has your experience been like as CEO, particularly as the first female at the helm? 

Dara Bartels: People expect me to take a  hard, fast-line approach in decision-making, and I really am one who wants to hear how it affects people in general. I've spent more time in the last two weeks talking to the community — food pantries, getting on the radio, sharing our story — than we're used to at Mile Bluff. I think some of that really comes from the perspective of that line of compassion that fits more than just business. I think my life experiences frankly as a female and a leader has really allowed me to pay attention to that more, and I think that's some of the change we're going to feel here. We focused really on operations, and I'm changing it to focus on community employees and how that affects the patient. 

Q: How does your financial acumen inform your leadership style? 

DB: The financial piece I was strong at was being able to talk as a human finance leader. I didn't use a lot of financial lingo. I was able to talk in the CFO role about how things affected each other instead of just deciding based on money. What that helps me with in the CEO role is I always have that understanding of all those touch points behind, so when we make a decision in a room, I can understand how that impacts all the way down through our billing system, with the insurance companies. I think bringing that forward will help the organization make better decisions knowing the impact all the way down to the patient and their payments.

Q: Rural hospital closures hit a record high last year as facilities grappled with financial pressures tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as long-standing challenges such as low patient volume and heavy reliance on government payers. Are you optimistic about the future of rural healthcare? 

DB: Yes, I am. I believe it is a strong and powerful route to keeping communities afloat out in rural areas. If you look at Mile Bluff, what is so intriguing is they fit right in the hub, an hour away from other major hospitals. We talk about telemedicine, we talk about all these other things that, in my mind, are hitting the big city, and it's not really to the rural communities yet. I believe that human touch is going to come back around, and the rural community hospitals will play a major role in that as we go into the next generation. 

Q: How has the role of Mile Bluff changed during the pandemic? 

DB: We have relationships with University of Wisconsin and La Crosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health System and Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic, and as they started filling up, we ended up being their backflow, which is not the normal relationship. It's normally the other way around. The last couple years while they were filling up, we were able to make sure we're keeping the people here in the community we can take care of. I think that is really what is changing the dynamics. How can we tell the community what is really going on because we're part of them versus a bigger organization reaching out into our community. 

Q: What are your goals next year? 

DB: We have two main goals. The patient experience is one, getting us through COVID-19. We have a lot of people who are upset and afraid. And then building up the employee base. One of our main goals will be employee satisfaction, because through this we've really learned who's the one holding the oars. And if the organization loses touch with the employees through all of this, rural medicine will not survive.

I think it's an opportunity where we can start changing how we look at how we've handled healthcare in the past, and I think it can be scary, but I think it's very exciting. And taking it from a perspective of being a female leader and a focus on compassion, it will change the dynamics of Mile Bluff and hopefully surrounding hospitals.

Q: What advice do you have for other hospital CEOs? 

DB: Stay true to why you are doing what you do. We are nonprofit community hospitals because we take care of all. We're losing sight of taking care of our employees as well as we move through this. So, I think stepping back, reading through some of the things that are coming at us and remember that the core piece of what we do is the most important — and that's taking care of our employees and our communities and our patients. I had the luxury of being CFO and helping the CEO and watching him move through some of these pieces. From the concept of culture, hospitals can sometimes have what I've heard of as kind of a God complex. We still must allow people to have the right to make choices as we influence them. That's my thought process as I've watched everything while being the CFO.  

  

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