Virtual clinic shortens distance to health care

Podcast: Residents of rural North Dakota welcome Sanford Virtual Care’s first satellite clinic

Virtual clinic shortens distance to health care

Episode Transcript


Kellie Wettstein:

I think that our small communities, sometimes if you don’t know a rural area, you think that we live out here in the sticks and we don’t have anything available. But we have all the things that you could want and need to live in our community without having to drive out of it.

(Show open)

Reimagining Rural Health,” a podcast series by Sanford Health. In this series, we explore the challenges facing health care systems across the country from improving access to equitable care, building a sustainable workforce, and discovering innovative ways to deliver high-quality, low-cost services in rural and underserved populations. Each episode examines how Sanford Health and other health systems are advancing care for the unique communities they serve.

Alan Helgeson (host):

The sign adorned by American flags reads, “Welcome to Lidgerwood, population 601” in the southeast corner of North Dakota, just 11 miles north of the South Dakota-North Dakota border.

Briana Spellerberg:

I love living and working in the southeast corner of North Dakota because I grew up here. This is my home.

Alan Helgeson (host):

For Brianna Spellerberg, small towns are all she has known.

Briana Spellerberg:

I actually grew up in Milner, North Dakota. And so I grew up in this area. I grew up in Sargent County, and then I moved to over by Lidgerwood, and so I’ve always lived in a small community my whole life.

Alan Helgeson (host):

Brianna’s work takes her to several communities. She’s the director of nursing for the Sargent County District Health Unit.

Briana Spellerberg:

One of the big programs that I do a lot of hands-on with is our immunization program. I have a team now that we work together to make sure that our whole community is vaccinated or up to date on vaccines and/or has access to vaccines. So we we’re trying to make it as accessible as possible.

Alan Helgeson (host):

Making health care accessible is part of Julie Falk’s everyday life. She owns Julie’s Pharmacy here in Lidgerwood.

Julie Falk:

I came from a big family. I wouldn’t want to spend it anywhere else besides in a small town. It gives them more opportunity to do things in a small high school. Our children doing things in a small high school gives you – you don’t just have to go out for basketball and focus on one sport. I love the volunteerism in a small town. That’s where I volunteer most is with all the community events.

Alan Helgeson (host):

In communities like Lidgerwood, having businesses like Julie Falk’s pharmacy, a grocery store and a clinic, they’re crucial to the town’s survival.

Brittany Jaehning:

Lidgerwood has had the clinic for quite some time.

Alan Helgeson (host):

Brittany Jaehning is the clinic director for several communities, including Lidgerwood.

Brittany Jaehning:

For the last handful of years. We are open Monday through Wednesday all day, so that’s 8 to 4 and then Thursday just until 1:30. So it really left them a gap Thursday afternoon and Friday.

Alan Helgeson (host):

For patients and families like Kellie Wettstein, having access to health care is deeply personal.

Kellie Wettstein:

We lost our son, Jonah, last September. He was three and a half. So Jonah was epileptic and he was later diagnosed with Dravet syndrome. We doctored and tried to figure a lot of things out, but with those pieces of Dravet, our local clinic came in huge.

We could just go into the clinic then, and he could have his blood draws done, urine samples, all that lab work done right in town. So you made my long commute out from home to town. That was huge for me to be able to get him up in the morning. We would just load up, go to the clinic in town, they would draw his blood, we could go back to work, daycare, our day-to-day type thing. And we were in and out of there again, probably in a half hour. I was so impressed through the whole journey of what we were able to do in town. And I know it was only a piece of the broader spectrum of the care that he needed.

It’s a lot less stressful when you just have to go into town versus, you know, we’re homebodies by nature. It comes from farming and working locally. We don’t go out of town often, so if we have to pack up and go to an appointment, I feel like it adds anxiety to our kids just right off the bat versus if we’re going to town, like we’re always in town. Jonah used to refer to the clinic as “tap, tap, poke,” but you know, it was in a loving context. Him and Jess, the lab tech, got along just fine.

There is a lot of peace of mind in walking in the clinic. They greet you by name, ask you how you’re doing, and you sit in the waiting room, probably with three other people that you know already. It eased a lot of anxiety on our end.

Alan Helgeson (host):

Susan Jarvis is the VP of operations for Sanford Health Fargo. For Susan, Kellie and her family are a prime example of why Sanford Health is expanding the ways people access care in rural America.

Susan Jarvis:

Within Sanford, we’ve been doing virtual care for, gosh, over a decade. So we provide services out to our rural emergency departments. We provide this virtual care where maybe a specialist is in Fargo and they see a patient virtually up in International Falls, Minnesota, or Jamestown, North Dakota, anywhere within our footprint.

Alan Helgeson (host):

In August 2022, Sanford Health broke ground on a state-of-the-art virtual care center, a 60,000-square-foot facility that will change the way care is delivered to rural America and to serve as a hub for a network of virtual clinics such as Lidgerwood. The $350 million project was made possible thanks to the support of visionary donor, T. Denny Sanford.

Susan Jarvis:

There’s the virtual care center that’s being constructed in Sioux Falls, but then there’s just virtual care really all over the Sanford footprint from some of our hubs like Fargo or Sioux Falls or Bismarck or Bemidji, out into our networks or from Sioux Falls out to other places. And so Lidgerwood is the very first virtual clinic out of this initiative, out of these dollars from Mr. Sanford. So it’s really exciting.

Alan Helgeson (host):

In Lidgerwood, residents have also relied on local community leaders to step up and offer solutions. For this community of 601 residents, that was the rural health board.

Kellie Wettstein:

So right now we are the Lidgerwood Hankinson Rural Health Clinic Board, and we are a 10-members board with five of the members being from the Hankinson community and five of the members from Lidgerwood. We own a facility in each town.

Brittany Jaehning:

If they were going to go from Lidgerwood to Wahpeton, it’d be about 45 miles. Say you’re going to go to Fargo, which was a lot of our specialty care and that type of thing, you’d be looking at closer to an hour and 15, an hour and 20 minutes for that commute. This might be the difference of seeking health care or not.

Alan Helgeson (host):

Connecting the dots in rural America is like putting together the pieces of a difficult puzzle. That’s where Sharlene Thompson comes into play. She’s part of Sanford’s virtual care team.

Sharlene Thompson:

Every community has a different need and has a different footprint and a different patient population and dynamics. So when we determine what our next satellite site or step forward is, it absolutely will look different than Lidgerwood, which is exciting because we are going to meet the community need versus just really a copy and paste.

Alan Helgeson (host):

Community nurses like Brianna Spellerberg point to the future as the key to survival.

Briana Spellerberg:

This is going to change health care, and I think this is really going to be how, I mean, we’re going to see more of it. Medicine is forever changing, and so you have to be open to the new technology and as much as it might be like, “Oh, I don’t know if this is – this is new and I don’t know if I trust it,” but it’s like, “Give it a chance.” Like everything, you have to be ever changing and so nothing’s ever going to evolve if you don’t go with the world.

Alan Helgeson (host):

Pharmacy owner Julie Falk agrees.

Julie Falk:

I was like, “Oh wow, this is finally happening.” I was so excited, and like I said, we’ve done telepharmacy here for years and it’s worked out so well, and I’m excited to spread the word and send patients that way. I want my grandchildren to grow up here and so I can watch them grow up. My families are close. I think that helps and you have to support the whole network of your family working together, living together and having opportunities in a small town.

Alan Helgeson (host):

For both Kellie and Brianna, offering telehealth in a small town is a perfect blend of old and new.

Kellie Wettstein:

It is possible to have all these services offered to a community of just a few hundred people with the right combination of people working together. And if you find the right organization that’s willing to work with you, a lot can happen with a little bit of work.

Briana Spellerberg:

I’m proud to call this area home. I have a lot of family here, I have a lot of friends here, and it’s just, everyone’s so friendly. Like today, I think everybody I passed on the highway waved at me. People are friendly. That’s why we stay.

Alan Helgeson (host):

For Sanford Health leaders, the Lidgerwood Virtual Care Clinic offers the perfect opportunity to live out the company’s mission, to provide outstanding care, no matter the ZIP code.

Sharlene Thompson:

We want to meet our community members where they are versus asking them to meet us where we are. That’s what virtual provides.

Susan Jarvis:

If you live in Lidgerwood, North Dakota, success means that the care that you need is available to you when you need it. The one thing I would want for people to take away from this is that Sanford really does care about delivering quality care as close to home as possible. And we invest resources in that, and time and energy, and think innovatively. We really want to serve the rural population that we serve, and we want to be the premier rural health care provider in the United States.

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Posted In Community, Company News, Family Medicine, Fargo, General, Here for all. Here for good., Leadership in Health Care, News, Rural Health, Virtual Care, Wahpeton