Corner Office: How Sanford Health aims to boost rural healthcare access

Bill Gassen was promoted to president and CEO of Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health in November, replacing Kelby Krabbenhoft at the helm of the 46-hospital system.

Mr. Gassen has worked for Sanford Health since 2012, previously serving as chief administrative officer.

As CEO, he said he is passionate about expanding access to rural healthcare and helping employees develop and excel. 

Here, Mr. Gassen answers Becker's Hospital Review's seven Corner Office questions.

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

Bill Gassen: My mom was a nurse, and when I was growing up, she worked the night shifts while my dad served in the Air Force so she could be home with my two brothers and me during the day. She sacrificed so much — she worked every other weekend and every other holiday for the vast majority of her career. She could have worked anywhere, but caring for people was her calling. Her passion for helping others inspired me to pursue a career in healthcare. 

My wife, Jill, is a physician assistant for the Veterans Administration, where she serves those who serve our country. Jill's work is a regular reminder of the impact we can have in healthcare and the obligations many caregivers continue to have when they arrive home.

Our caregivers here at Sanford Health are the soul of this organization. They're essential to helping us fulfill our core purpose of taking the best possible care of our patients. Just like my mom and wife, they tell us they feel a deep sense of calling for the care they provide. It's what keeps them going day after day while balancing their many other responsibilities.

It is an immense privilege to be able to lead and support the nearly 47,000 Sanford Health family members who are making a difference every day in the lives of our patients, residents and communities. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about Sioux Falls?

BG: My wife, Jill, and I are blessed with five children ages 2 to 11 years old, and we feel so fortunate to be able to raise our family here. The quality of life is one of the best in the country — from year-round outdoor recreational activities, of course access to a world-class health system, great schools and colleges, to economic resilience and growth. 

Sioux Falls maintains a small-town feel while offering all of the big-city amenities anyone could ever want. I also enjoy the Midwest values, work ethic and sense of team on display every day in our city and throughout Sanford Health.

There is also a strong tradition of coming together to make the community a better place. People look out for each other like family and are generous with their time and gifts. We couldn't imagine living anywhere else. 

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?  

BG: Many of those we serve live in rural areas. Continuing to increase access to high-quality care in rural areas is what keeps me up at night. 

The farmer in Ellendale, N.D., battling cancer deserves access to expert oncologists just as much as someone living in a densely populated urban city. For too many people living in some of rural America, healthcare may be out of reach — too far away for families and their children. We are committed to transforming the healthcare experience for those living in rural areas, bringing world-class, affordable and seamless care to people whenever and wherever they need it. 

My promise to those we have the privilege to serve is that their care won't be limited by their ZIP code. We're committed to providing world-class care everywhere.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?  

BG: I'm a great cheerleader, much to the chagrin of my three daughters (the boys are still too young to be embarrassed by me). I get to be the loudest and most enthusiastic fan in the stands and on the sidelines for my kids who enjoy participating in gymnastics and soccer. Wrestling and football begin this year for our oldest son.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

BG: My family and faith recharge me. I've been blessed to be married to an amazingly talented and beautiful woman for nearly 20 years. Together, we have the distinct honor of loving and raising our five children. Time with my kids grounds me, gives me perspective, keeps me active and motivates me to be better every day. 

Today, more than ever, I am mindful of this as I lead our organization. We strongly advocate self-care, wellness and a healthy work-family-life balance for all of our employees. 

We believe we need to take care of our caregivers so they can take care of others. Sanford Health has a comprehensive strategy to support the well-being of our workforce to promote awareness and prevention of mental health issues.

We are committed to providing a healthy work environment for all of our employees, one that encourages well-being and promotes high-quality care for our patients.  In fact, that's one of the things that attracts clinicians to Sanford Health. They become part of a family when they join Sanford Health, and we will always look out for them first as our fellow sisters and brothers and caregivers second.

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

BG: Always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you — working in healthcare makes this pretty easy for me.

I've learned so much by listening carefully in places where passion, intellect and diverse perspectives are shared daily. I have always sought to build a team around me with people who help make us better by contributing their unique talents and expertise.

I am also a believer in servant leadership — a philosophy that tilts toward the deliberate sharing of influence and decision-making. It means putting the needs of employees and patients first and paying it forward by providing resources and encouragement to help the team develop and excel. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Sanford so far?  

BG: Earlier this year, Sanford Health announced an initiative to transform rural care delivery, improving access to affordable, high-quality healthcare for generations to come. The initiative was driven by our renewed focus on our patients and residents, people and communities. They will benefit from the creation of a state-of-the-art virtual care strategy that serves communities across Sanford Health's rural footprint and beyond through our network of hospitals and clinics, allowing patients to get the very best healthcare using the most advanced technology as close to home as possible. 

As part of this initiative made possible by the generosity of benefactor Denny Sanford, we are working with our academic partners to create eight new graduate medical residencies and fellowships in critical specialty areas. This training after medical school further prepares physicians to practice in certain medical specialties. Recruitment and retention of healthcare professionals is an ongoing challenge in rural America. By doubling the opportunities for graduate medical education, Sanford Health will build a stronger workforce, prepared to lead the next generation of healthcare. This initiative will bring highly sought-after clinical expertise, resources and subspecialties to the region so patients can access high-quality care close to home. Sanford Health is resolute in our belief that everyone deserves world-class care no matter where they live. 

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