Sanford Health's CEO eyes growth

Bill Gassen, president and CEO of Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health, sees a bright future for the health system despite a recently halted merger with Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services.


"I could not be more optimistic about Sanford Health and the future than I am today," said Mr. Gassen. "We have great resolve around the strategic aspiration of the organization, which is to be the premier rural health system in the United States. That strategy has remained in place since we coalesced around it early in my tenure in this role, and we've maintained an unwavering focus on that throughout our efforts to grow.”

Will Sanford target another acquisition in the near future? Mr. Gassen didn’t reveal any specific plans, but did say the health system is focused on serving rural America in the upper Midwest. Sanford’s footprint includes the top five poorest counties in the U.S. across 250,000 square miles, and growing.

“We have a privilege to be able to deliver world-class care to patients and we want to ensure those individuals receive the best health care possible, and they aren't limited by their zip codes," he said. "We're excited about continuing to do that. I'm proud of the efforts that have been underway at this organization to ensure we're coming into those communities and doing everything we can to deliver the best and most advanced care."

Mr. Gassen pointed to the health system's work in advancing cancer care by implementing technologies like 3D mammography systemwide. Last year, 99 percent of all mammograms performed at Sanford facilities used 3D technology.

"We think that's the appropriate standard of care. We're excited to be able to do everything that we can to extend that care and reach into each one of our communities," said Mr. Gassen.

Sanford also has a significant effort around physician and clinician outreach to improve access to care across rural communities. For many years, physicians would travel hundreds of miles per day to ensure the best possible primary and subspecialty care in remote locations. The health system can now leverage virtual care for even broader and more convenient access. Sanford received a $350 million philanthropic investment in 2021 to extend care, including through a virtual network.

Sanford's focus on quality has also produced results in the last few years, building its regional reputation.

"Our organization has also always prioritized quality, but even more significantly over the last few years, we've made it a top priority that everywhere that care is delivered at Sanford Health, we're going to ensure that's the highest possible quality care," said Mr. Gassen. "Throughout the pandemic and financial challenges of 2022 and 2023, we've continued to see a significant reduction in our serious safety events, which is one of the indicators that we follow very closely and share with our board of trustees and across all care sites."

Sanford has reported more than 50 percent reduction in serious safety events in the most recent time frame, and has been disciplined about returning to positive margins year over year through the pandemic and into 2023. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Sanford invests its margin back into the community and care sites.

"We're really looking back and understanding better today than ever before that it's the integrated nature of our health system that allows us to be successful," Mr. Gassen said. "By bringing together all the capabilities that we're blessed to have through our health plan, research, acute care, post-acute arm and the incredible team of clinicians who we have serving together, not as a holding company, but as a deeply integrated health system that allows us to achieve the necessary integration and deliver world class care. We can improve access and do it in a financially sustainable way."

Looking ahead, Mr. Gassen said he is constantly thinking about new ways to leverage technology and think differently about workflows and care delivery to build upon the system's past successes. The health system's leaders and workforce are critical to the long-term success of the organization, he said. The system's namesake and benefactor, Danny Sanford, made a $250 million investment in graduate medical education to stand up eight additional residency and fellowship programs within the network.

"We know right now that those individuals who train with us through the residency and through their fellowship programs are more likely to stay with us," he said. "Close to 40 percent of those individuals who train with us will remain with us afterwards. I think that's an incredible opportunity for us to continue to bring world-class talent to each of our communities."

Sanford has also seen improvement in employee satisfaction, measured by the net promoter score. The health system has efforts for clinicians and non-clinical staff to avoid burnout and ensure employee voices are heard systemwide. The leadership team aims to be responsive and help the broader team see the value they're providing to their communities on a daily basis.

"Everybody's a caregiver, whether you're at the bedside or supporting those who are at the bedside, whether you're on the front lines or in research," said Mr. Gassen. "No matter what they're doing, everybody's working toward the same goal. How do we improve the lives of patients we have the privilege of serving? It is a real special blessing to be able to work at an organization like this that has the best and brightest within health care."

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