Virtual clinic expands in-person health care in rural ND

Lidgerwood becomes home to Sanford Virtual Care’s first satellite clinic

Virtual clinic expands in-person health care in rural ND

Like many small towns, strong community bonds are what keep Lidgerwood, North Dakota, a town of about 600, thriving.

“Our rural community has a lot to offer,” said Kellie Wettstein, who grew up in Lidgerwood and now works at her mom’s business, Deb’s Seed Sales, as a sales agronomist. “We have a clinic, pharmacy, brand new grocery store and lumber, hardware, gas. All the things that you could possibly want and need you can find right on our Main Street.”

It’s that same desire to have community needs met close to home that created the opportunity for the Sanford Health clinic in Lidgerwood to become a virtual satellite clinic.

Starting this month, the clinic is expanding its hours. Thanks to virtual care technology, it can provide primary care services five days a week.

From Monday through part of Thursday, patients can receive care from an in-person provider, and from Thursday afternoon through Friday, they can be seen virtually by a provider located in Wahpeton, North Dakota.

When patients arrive at the clinic for a virtual visit, they check in and a nurse takes the lead, performing the exam portion of their visit and connecting the patient to the remote provider. Using state-of-the-art tools, the provider can assess the patient’s condition, including their heart, lungs, ears and throat, with assistance from the nurse.

“It’s a great way to pool our resources and work a little bit more efficiently,” said Brittany Jaehning, director of clinic operations for Sanford Health in Wahpeton. “Meanwhile, offering health care services to a community that so desires it.”

Meeting a community’s needs

Kellie describes the community of Lidgerwood as having a “can-do attitude.” When there’s a need, the town comes together to find a solution.

In the 1980s, community members did just this, and opened a clinic on Main Street, which is now the home of the Sanford Health Lidgerwood Clinic.

“They raised funds, volunteered, bought the building, got the clinic up and running, and it’s still there today with a volunteer committee helping to oversee it,” Kellie said.

That volunteer committee is the Lidgerwood and Hankinson Rural Health Clinic Board, made up of 10 members from both towns, including Kellie, along with pharmacist Julie Falk and Sargent County District Health Director of Nursing Briana Spellerberg.

“The 10 of us have different backgrounds, occupations and about half of our board is involved in health care every single day,” Kellie said. “And then the other half of us, we’re not, but we need the services. Health care is universal in the fact that whether you work in it or not, you still have some understanding of it and a need for it.”

Keeping care close to home

The rural health board is also part of Kellie’s family’s history. Her husband’s grandmother was among the first group of board members.

“Our family always says that as she was aging, she saw the same need that we have still today,” said Kellie. “She didn’t want to have to drive out of town to get good quality health care, so she was on the board to make sure we had those services available in town.”

Kellie follows in her footsteps for those same reasons, too.

The ability to receive health care services close to home has also deeply impacted her family.

Kellie and her husband, Scott, had a 3-year-old son named Jonah who died in September.

Jonah had a rare form of genetic epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome, which often causes long seizures that are difficult to control with medication.

Throughout Jonah’s treatment journey, his pediatric neurologist at Mayo Clinic collaborated with the Sanford Health Lidgerwood Clinic to have his lab work and other testing done locally whenever possible.

Walking into her hometown’s clinic for part of Jonah’s care was comforting.

“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,” Kellie said. “It eased a lot of anxiety on our end.”

For Kellie and her family, the clinic became an important resource.

“I was so impressed throughout our journey of what we were able to do in town,” said Kellie. “It was only a piece of the broader spectrum of the care that he needed … but having the clinic in town was a huge resource for us to have.”

With the clinic’s virtual care services now expanding access to care beyond Lidgerwood, Kellie is looking forward to seeing the impact it will make connecting more people in her community to care, including the possibility of specialty visits.

“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,” Kellie stated. “And if you find the right organization that’s willing to work with you, a lot can happen with a little bit of work.”

Success with virtual care next door

Next door to the Sanford Health Lidgerwood Clinic is Julie’s Pharmacy and Home Décor, owned by fellow rural health board member, Julie, and her husband Nate Falk.

This pharmacy location is Julie’s second storefront. After she graduated from pharmacy school in 1998, the local pharmacist in Hankinson, North Dakota, retired, and Julie became the new owner of Hankinson Drug.

A few years later, she was faced with another big decision when the pharmacist in Lidgerwood retired.

“I did not want my hometown to go without a pharmacy, and for me to be in both places at once wasn’t possible,” she said.

Then, a telepharmacy grant from North Dakota State University offered a solution. Through the grant, Julie was able to expand pharmacy services to Lidgerwood and provide virtual medication counseling to patients from 13 miles away in Hankinson, allowing her to work as a pharmacist in both communities.

She’s now been using virtual care for almost two decades and daily experiences the benefits. Because of this, she’s excited about the future of virtual care services at the Sanford Health Lidgerwood Clinic.

“We’ve done telepharmacy here for years and it’s worked out so well, so I was very thrilled to find out that they’re going to do telehealth in Lidgerwood,” Julie said. “I’m excited to spread the word and send patients that way when we need to.”

Connecting more patients to care

Briana Spellerberg is also proud to provide care in the same area where she grew up. She is another person who serves on the rural health board.

“I love living and working in the southeast corner of North Dakota because I grew up here and this is my home,” she said.

Spellerberg is the director of nursing for Sargent County District Health and works in Forman, North Dakota. She oversees a nursing team that provides a wide range of health care services, from vaccinations to home health visits.

In this role, she witnesses the strengths of living in a small, close-knit community, but also the challenges that come with life in a rural area. Among those are transportation, which can often be a barrier to accessing health care services.

“Bringing virtual care to Lidgerwood and smaller communities is huge because it’s going to eliminate a drive for people,” she said. “By offering a different way to try and bridge that gap and to get more services to those communities, it’s really going to make an impact on the overall health of these communities and keep people in these communities.”

Sanford’s virtual care initiative

In 2021, Sanford Health began a virtual care initiative to bring together medical expertise and the latest technology. As part of this initiative, the organization is finding innovative ways to provide quality, convenient care in rural and underserved areas. Learn more about Sanford Virtual Care.

Learn more

Posted In Company News, Here for all. Here for good., Rural Health, Virtual Care