Capping three years of planning and work, Billings Clinic and Central Montana Medical Center in Lewistown formalized an affiliation partnership this week.
The partnership brings Lewistown's critical access hospital under the arm of Billings Clinic and allows the smaller hospital access to additional resources, training and support.
"Our whole purpose is maintaining our level of patient care and improving that," said David Phillips, chairman of Central Montana Medical Center's governing board.
Central Montana Medical Center began the process of looking for a partner four years ago. As a small, rural hospital it faces significant financial and staffing challenges to keep its doors open.
The list of small, rural critical access hospitals across the country that have closed keeps growing, Phillips said.
"We did not want to be one of those," he said.
The hospital sought proposals from various hospital systems and went through a process to winnow down the list. In the end, they selected Billings Clinic.
"It's a very important partnership," said Clint Seger, regional chief medical officer, for Billings Clinic.
Billings Clinic currently has regional partnerships with 12 hospitals or medical centers across eastern Montana and northern Wyoming. Medical services in rural communities, where major hospitals can be hours away, are oftentimes the difference between life and death if there's a serious accident on a farm or ranch, or even snake bite.
"We want them to be as successful as they can be," Seger said.
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Seger has met with officials from out-of-state health care systems who talk about the rural communities they serve. Then they tour some of those systems in Montana and have to adjust their notions of what rural medicine really is, Seger said.
"It's beyond rural," Seger said. "This is frontier medicine."
Seger, who practiced medicine in Cody, Wyoming, believes in maintaining strong, local medical centers. A partnership with a larger, regional hospital can help communities keep their small medical centers open, he said.
Through the partnership, Central Montana Medical Center will adopt Billings Clinic's electronic medical records system. It will also have access to Billings Clinic specialists, staff training and professional services, like HR expertise. It will also tap into the Clinic's supply chain, which will reduce costs at the Lewistown hospital.
One of the biggest challenges for small, rural hospitals is being able to recruit doctors. Partnerships like these can make recruitment easier, Seger said.
Having the resources of a larger hospital on tap allow rural doctors to lean on support and expertise they wouldn't otherwise have, which can be an appealing notion, Seger said.
"They've got a colleague they know," he said.
Phillips is excited for the partnership. He said it's been a methodical and deliberate process and he feels confident it's been done the right way.
"We spent a lot of time with it and I'm glad we did," he said.