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Leading a Top 20 Rural Community Hospital

Jun 20, 2019 07:00PM ● By MED Magazine

MED spoke with the leaders of South Dakota’s two 2019 Top 20 Rural Community Hospitals for their perspectives on the award and what it says about the past and future of their organizations.

Below are insights from Brookings Health CEO Jason Merkley, whose organization recently won the Top 20 award for a second time in three years, and from and Prairie Lakes Healthcare System CEO KC DeBoer. This was Prairie Lakes’ third Top 20 designation in four years.

MED: What does this Top 20 Rural Community Hospital designation mean to your organization?

KC DeBoer: Prairie Lakes Healthcare System has been honored with the Top 20 designation three times in the last four years. Consistently performing on a high level takes dedication, drive, and passion by our Board of Directors, staff, and providers. It’s rewarding for our organization and everyone involved to be recognized on a national level and validates that what we are doing everyday makes a difference.  To be recognized as one of the Top 20 hospitals out of a group of 800 hospitals demonstrates to our community and the region that they have access to one of the best healthcare systems in the country, right here in Watertown. They can receive the high quality, compassionate healthcare they need and want here close to home.

Jason Merkley: I think it is important to understand the facilities within this designation do not apply to be included within this prestigious category of hospitals.  Brookings Hospital was recognized as one of the top rural community hospitals in the United States based on publicly reported data that every other facility in this category also submits.  The designation validates that at Brookings Hospital we strive for excellence at every patient encounter and in everything we do. It signifies confidence to our service area the staff and providers at Brookings Hospital are passionate about what they do every day, committed to quality and outcomes and provide excellent service…in summary, their dedication has ranked Brookings Hospital amongst the best!


MED: What do you think it says about your hospital?

JM: The measurement tool (Hospital Strength INDEX) is a nationwide hospital rating system that quantifies overall hospital performance in eight key pillars of excellence: Inpatient Market Share, Outpatient Market Share, Quality, Outcomes, Patient Perspective, Cost, Charge and Financial Stability.  The INDEX then rates and evaluates hospitals on these market, value-based and financial measures. The rating system demonstrates that Brookings Hospital has achieved a level of success within these pillars of excellence to rank its facility as one of the best in the nation. We are honored to be included within this group of hospitals and congratulate others within South Dakota and across the country who join us in the Top 20!

MED: What is your 'secret' to continuing to thrive as an independent entity when so many other hospitals have been forced to align with larger systems or shut their doors?

KCD: The secret to our continued success is the people who are a part of our organization. From our Board and their excellent vision that has driven the growth of our specialty services, to the leadership team who has fostered an environment of innovation and continuous improvement, and to our staff and providers who provide the best care possible to every patient, every time. We don’t stand still and are always looking for the next opportunity to better serve our community and the region.  Prairie Lakes has a history of making sound financial and operational decisions that have allowed us to grow new services and recruit and retain excellent providers and staff. People want to be part of something special and at Prairie Lakes they have the opportunity to make a difference.

JM: Edgar Howe once wrote, “the man who can keep a secret may be wise, but he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep.”  The business of healthcare is complex, increasingly regulated, always newsworthy, and politically charged. Thriving in this environment takes community and regional support, local governance, strategy and leadership and relationships and partnerships with others.  It takes staff and provider commitment to excellence, the knowledge to lead and think visionary and the determination to never stop learning and improving. There is nothing secret about these characteristics, it is what I believe every health system or hospital entity and leader is striving to accomplish. We are blessed in South Dakota to have great healthcare from large health systems and smaller independents.  Possibly Brookings Health System is just lucky? Or, maybe we have just enough of that “secret sauce”, or more likely the characteristics noted above, to propel our hospital and health system to thrive in this challenging environment. That said, what impresses and humbles me the most about this NRHA Top 20 designation is that not one thing about this award is secret, and the sauce is comprised of public reported data of all the things we do exceptionally well at Brooking Hospital.

MED: When you attended the Awards Ceremony, did you find that the other winners were similar to your organization or were there notable differences? (In other words, do you think you are unique among Top 20 hospitals in some way?)

JM: Amongst the other winners within the Top 20, I do not believe Brookings Hospital was unique in any given way.  I think the notable differences came when you looked at the States represented in the Top 20, South Dakota was well represented with three (3) facilities and second only to Indiana with five (5) facilities.

KCD: The depth and breadth of the specialty services we offer to the Watertown community and the region stand out when I talked with others in the Top 20.  They all have individual areas of strength that brought them there. Prairie Lakes compares favorably in many areas and presents as a very well balanced organization across the measured metrics.


MED: What one thing are you most looking forward to in your organization in the next year? In the next five years?


JM: In the next year, Brookings Health System is embarking on an information technology journey to upgrade to our electronic health record (Meditech) in partnership with Avera Health.  The hosted model will allow our providers and patients to have one seamless record that is shared across health systems. This enhancement to the Meditech platform will greatly assist our providers in caring for our patients , streamline usability and ensure our  patients are receiving the highest quality care possible in Brookings, SD.


Five (5) years…does anyone know these days what the healthcare industry will look like in five (5) years?  Healthcare futurist opinions are all over the board and about the only thing I can predict that far in the future is that I will “hopefully” be five (5) years wiser.  So, I honestly do not know what to expect or look forward to in five (5) years…yes, that creates a sense of uneasiness, but nothing is easy these days within health care.  So, at Brookings Health System we will continue down our path of striving to impact and achieve our Mission of providing high quality, compassionate personalized healthcare by serving those in need of rural health care in the Brookings Region.


KCD: We are focused on positively engaging with our employees and providers to continuously improve the quality and service we provide to our patients and community. We continue to grow services being a financially stable, independent health system.


MED: Why is high quality rural community healthcare important?


KCD: We believe that the health of the community is dependent on providing high quality, cost effective healthcare close to home. When care is centralized, people in rural areas can be left with limited choices and options. To that end we have continued to invest in the growth of specialty services for our region so that people do not have to travel long distances for care that can be, and should be, provided in Watertown.  As an independent healthcare system we are able to make decisions locally and prioritize the best interests of those we serve.


Tags: Top 20, NRHA, community hospital, Brookings, Prairie Lakes, DeBoer, Merkley