Theres a tsunami headed toward America. Its massive, its scary and if you look at it from the wrong angle, it appears unstoppable.
Kirk Dignum just retired from Mercy Regional Medical Center after 14 years as president and chief executive officer. Being out of the way of this tsunami has certainly made his life easier. But if youre wanting to hear doomsday talk from an insider who believes that time is nigh for workable health care in the United States, go visit someone else.
Its going to be an exciting decade of change, Dignum says, relaxed in sweatshirt and jeans in his Three Springs home. Hes texting with a friend, making plans to go mountain biking.
Well get back to why hes so stoked about health care. And well talk about the changes at Mercy during his tenure. But perhaps the biggest achievement simply was lasting 14 years way beyond average for a hospital CEO. It helped to have roots in the area and experience in several aspects of health care and human relations.
Dignum, now 61, is a Denver-area native and 1973 graduate of Fort Lewis College, where he packed Purgatorys slopes on foot for a free pass. He left town for a decade, to get a masters in Texas and a doctorate in medical anthropology and gerontology in California. But he was back in Durango by 1982, enjoying a laid-back, outdoor-oriented lifestyle.
He worked with a software company, and was a management consultant who specialized in doctors practices. After three years as Mercys vice president of ambulatory services, he was appointed to the hospitals head role on an interim basis in September 1998.
It wasnt a position he was yearning for, and at the time he was noncommittal on a permanent role: I have a wife and two kids, he told the Herald then. If the job takes 1,000 hours a week, then I dont know ...
His mother, dying of cancer, convinced him to go for it full time. Dont waste your God-given talent, she told him. Well, whats a boy to do?
After a national search, the Mercy board gave him a permanent job as president and chief executive officer in September 1999.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts, who served on the Mercy board of directors from 2000 to 2006, says many wont fully appreciate all the balls he had to juggle to keep the hospital solvent.
He put in so many hours, Roberts says. If stress counts for hours, he put in triple time.
Dignum says he can divide his Mercy CEO tenure into three careers.
His first task was to help the struggling hospital achieve financial stability. After his first couple of years, Mercy was back in the black.
Next was figuring out what to do with an old facility that was falling apart. After convincing Catholic Health Initiatives to make a $76 million loan, and in partnership with the Southern Ute Tribe, Mercy broke ground on a new facility in 2004 in Grandview.
After the hospitals completion in 2006, Dignum says he focused on the operational side, improving quality.
The top achievement was, of course, the new hospital, right?
Not even close, Dignum counters. The hospitals just bricks and mortar. The biggest challenge I had at Mercy was changing the culture to be one of high performance and high quality.
He and his management team set about making Mercy a top-notch facility where its nearly 1,000 employees are generally happy to work.
One of the things Im proudest of is I think we pulled that off, Dignum says.
Hes talking in the past tense, but the truth is he hasnt totally left the hospital business. Hes working for Centura Health, now Mercys parent company, as a part-time consultant. It entails travels to Denver, Centuras base. His official title: senior vice president of system initiatives.
OK, so Mercy is financially stable with a grand, still relatively new facility and happy workers. But that wont matter if only the rich can afford health insurance.
On paper, the situation is grim. About 16 percent of Americans dont have health insurance. In many places, including Durango, even if you are insured, its not easy to find a primary-care doctor. Then theres the specter of baby boomers reaching Medicare age 11,000 per day, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. On top of that, diseases such as childhood diabetes have reached near-epidemic proportions. Is that a towering tsunami, or what?
Kids cant afford what weve created, Dignum says, thinking of his and wife Ginnys two daughters, Megan, 25, and Kelsey, 23.
So the system needs to change. And he believes it will. Its beginning to happen already, he says, but slowly. The key is incentives. We need systems that monetarily reward health-care providers and insurance companies for keeping people healthy. Mercy, for instance, could save a lot of money by preventing the need for the uninsured to use its emergency room for nonemergencies.
Weve been very good dealing with sickness, but were terrible at dealing with health care, Dignum says. Health care must change its perspective from sickness to health, he says. It must intervene sooner to keep diseases such as childhood diabetes from occurring. And health-care providers and insurance companies must be at financial risk to keep clients healthy.
Thats a fundamental, paramount, wonderful change that is going to happen, Dignum says. Its going to be painful. Its going to be extremely painful for health-care execs and the nursing ranks and the physician ranks. But its the right thing to do, in my opinion, because it will hopefully lead to better health for our citizens, and thats what we all want. ...
I think youll see a transformation in health care in the country in the next decade which will be phenomenal.
From his modest home in Grandview, this modest man leaves his most difficult and rewarding task with one wish: The only thing I could ever ask is I hope I left (Mercy) a little bit better than when I found it.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. His wife works in Mercys trauma services department. Coming soon: Tom Gessel, Mercys new chief executive, talks about his vision.