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Christenson takes helm at hospital amid challenges

By Staff | May 1, 2020


Heart of America Medical Center’s new CEO Erik Christenson stepped into a challenging situation when he took the helm two weeks ago.

In addition to finding ways to connect with the community and stay afloat financially, he faces unique problems caused by a national health emergency that began in March.

“There’s no doubt about it. COVID-19 creates a unique financial burden on the health system,” Christenson said in a phone interview Monday. “What I mean by that is we’ve had to shut down and cut back on much of our elective procedures where we usually make our revenue, a lot of surgeries and elective clinic visits.”

“Our clinic volume is down significantly,” he noted.

“That decreases volume throughout the whole hospital. Our volume is way down. And yet, we’ve got to maintain our staff for an emergency in case there’s a high uptick of COVID in the community,” Christenson added.

However, Christenson credits hospital and clinic staff for their support to manage the crisis.

“We’ve actually seen some really amazing team development and coordination from the leaders of the hospital here,” Christenson said. “I’m proud to say they’ve done great work with disaster management and the incident command system getting started up.”

“I think we’ve seen some hard work and dedication that proves why this hospital needs to be here and with that, yes, there are challenges,” he added.

Christenson said he has a commitment to making sure HAMC stays in the community.

He and his wife, Sarah, have called central North Dakota home for most of their lives.

“I grew up on a farm west of Harvey,” he said. “I graduated from Harvey High School, class of 1993.”

“I knew a lot of kids in Rugby with sports,” Christenson added. “Between all the sports I did, I knew quite a few people in Rugby.”

“When I went off to college at NDSU, I got my Doctorate of Pharmacy degree. I met my wife there,” Christenson said.

Sarah Christenson grew up in Harvey and Casselton. She now manages the durable medical equipment store at HAMC.

Daughters Hannah and Lauren were born while the couple was still in college, Christenson said. “When I got done with my pharmacy education, we moved to Rugby in 2000. I came to work as a pharmacist at the hospital.”

After moving to Rugby, the Christensons welcomed a son, Isaac, who is now a freshman at Rugby High School.

“Hannah is in dental school in Iowa,” Christenson said. “She married a local kid, Scott Brossart. She’s going to be a dentist. Maybe there’s a chance she would come back and practice in the area. That’s what we’re hoping.”

“Lauren is an HR manager for a company in Grand Forks. She’s going to be marrying a local boy, Jack McClintock,” Christenson added.

Christenson said he’s stayed involved in the family farm west of Harvey while working as a pharmacist. His work has also taken him to Minot’s Trinity Hospital, where he worked for three years before taking a position as pharmacy director at HAMC.

Christenson said he returned to work in Harvey in 2019, setting up a vaccine program at Service Drug and setting up an automated medication dispensing system at St. Aloisius Hospital.

“I was spending more time farming and I finished my master’s degree in business administration (during that time),” Christenson said. “People said I should apply for the CEO job (at HAMC).”

“I said, ‘Well, I could apply and see how it goes and see what happens,’ and as time went along, part of me was thinking I was pretty comfortable with what I was doing in Harvey. A CEO job comes with plenty of stress,” Christenson noted.

“Health care right now has lots of things going on right now that make it very complex to manage,” Christenson said.

“The more and more I thought about it, and with me, it was a lot of prayer,” he said with a laugh. “I came to the conclusion that it’s not about me, it’s about the community. This is a service. I was called to come into service for the community.”

Christenson described the COVID-related challenges that greeted him on his first day, April 13.

Hospital and clinic staff have been focusing on infection control, he noted. “On the hour, they’re cleaning up with disinfectants the areas where people are at. All employees are wearing masks in the hallways and when they’re with patients, so they’re definitely decreasing the ability of any kind of virus to spread. We follow strict infection control procedures so the hospital is very safe. People need their healthcare.”

“I can see people putting off elective procedures for a month or two, but there’s a time when these elective procedures become more urgent. So, (there will be a need for) communication with the community that business is going to have to get back to normal,” Christenson said. Elective procedures have resumed at HAMC as of Monday.

Although HAMC has received federal financial aid for the health crisis, Christenson noted, “We’re going to have to be very judicious in how we approach expenses once the federal funding isn’t there that has been for non-profit hospitals.”

“And all hospitals are going to have to go that route,” he added. “I personally want to avoid any of these furloughs you’ve been hearing about in a lot of these other organizations or some of the pay cuts that are going on just because of this COVID. I want to avoid that.”

Christenson said HAMC “has always wanted to be the provider of choice in the area. We want to get it to that point. When you think of health care, particularly primary care health care, it’s the clinic of choice for people to go to.”

Christenson described the Heart of America Johnson Clinic as “the gatekeeper to the rest of health care for the rest of this entire community. So, I want it to be that significant start off point for any of the health care processes in the community.”

“Beyond that, I also want it to be involved in community health,” Christenson said of the clinic and hospital. “So, when you think of the overall health of the community, Heart of America is involved in that from all aspects. Then, you start reaching out beyond just the clinic and the hospital.”

Christenson said he wanted to see HAMC “involved out there in the community in processes to help make the community healthier, whether that’s educating the community; that’s being out front – being the leader regarding various processes to make sure that the community’s a healthier community.”

“That’s where Heart of America needs to go. It needs to be the visible focus of health care in all aspects so people don’t think about going to the larger institutions,” Christenson explained. “They realize they can trust and come to Heart of America and we can point them in the right direction if it’s something we cannot provide.”

“But,” he added, “If (a health care service) is something we can provide, I want people to be thinking of Heart of America as that hospital.”

“Heart of America is Rugby. It is this community. It’s the community hospital; they own and operate it. It’s owned by 27 churches, it’s Good Samaritan Hospital Association,” Christenson added. “But I want people to think about it like that.”

“So,” Christenson said, “if there are any issues with the hospital, you have a voice to interject in how you want to see this operate.”

“How would you like to see this health system provide the health care that you need in this community?” Christenson asked. “That’s where I want Heart of America to go in the near term.”

“There’s quite a bit involved in that process internally in operations to make sure that everything is seamless for the patient when they come in,” Christenson said of quality health care. “Also, there’s a lot of education and outreach to the community to educate the community about what we’re doing, what’s available and how to get involved if things are not what you would like to see.”

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