Billings Clinic announced Wednesday that it has entered into a one-year, renewable agreement with the recently created Mayo Clinic Care Network, a nationwide affiliation of health organizations.

Billings Clinic, with 272 beds, is the first hospital in Montana to have passed Mayo’s review process and been selected as a member of the year-old network. It is the 12th hospital nationally to be included in the Mayo Clinic Care Network. There is also one Minnesota hospital in a separate Mayo Clinic Cancer Care Network.

The agreement formalizes the longstanding relationship that Billings Clinic has had with physicians at Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit worldwide leader in medical care, research and education. The alliance was initiated by Billings Clinic, but Dr. David Hayes, medical director of the Care Network, said the Billings hospital was also on its wish list of those they wanted to include. The partnership is a logical step for Billings Clinic, which considers itself “a small Mayo Clinic,” and has long used the Mayo Clinic as a mentor.

“Mayo has always been an organization we felt we wanted to emulate and learn from,” said Dr. Nicholas Wolter, CEO of Billings Clinic. “We’ve actually had a long relationship with them in other areas such as laboratory and many of our physicians trained at Mayo. For us, this was a very enticing prospect.”

The announcement of the partnership came during a news conference attended by hundreds on Wednesday morning.

Calling Billings Clinic an “excellent organization” with “dedicated staff,” Hayes, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Care Network, acknowledged his hospital’s 20-year professional relationship with Billings Clinic.

“Collaborating with other medical providers to provide the best possible care for patients has always been part of Mayo’s culture, and through the Mayo Clinic Care Network we can work in new ways with community care organizations to enhance the lives of patients,” Hayes said.

They will begin to see the impact of the agreement when it is rolled out in February.

There is nothing in the agreement that requires either physicians or patients to use Mayo’s expertise.

Although Billings Clinic pays for the partnership with Mayo, there will be no additional charge to Billings Clinic patients who benefit from the service, Wolter said.

“That is very clearly part of the agreement on both sides,” Wolter said.

Dr. J. Scott Millikan, a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon and chair of the Billings Clinic board of directors and who trained at the Mayo Clinic, said the collaborative relationship has the potential to save patients money because, in some instances, they won’t have to travel to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“This has the potential to keep care local, which obviously has a huge cost savings to folks,” Millikan said. “And it keeps the care at the same high level that they would otherwise have.”

More than 320 physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants at Billings Clinic will now be able to connect with Mayo Clinic specialists on questions of patient care using an electronic consulting technique called eConsults. Billings Clinic physicians will also have access to Mayo-vetted medical information through the AskMayoExpert database. AskMayoExpert is a state-of-the-art mechanism that provides access to Mayo Clinic’s knowledge in disease management, clinical care guidelines, treatment recommendations and reference materials for a variety of medical conditions.

Wolter predicts the hospital will engage in 10 to 20 electronic consultations per month. Though they will be available to all physicians and patients, the greatest volume are expected to be from those in cardiology, oncology and neurology.

These tools, in addition to health care consulting, are designed to provide the best care for its patients and the health of the community. Wolter said the agreement makes it possible to tap into Mayo’s consulting services in the areas of administrative processes and clinical approaches to large populations of patients with chronic disease.

Care Network members are not owned by Mayo. The primary goal of the Mayo Clinic Care Network is to help people gain the benefits of Mayo Clinic knowledge and expertise close to home, ensuring that patients need to travel for care only when necessary.

The network creates a web of affiliated clinics and hospitals nationwide, which are likely to refer patients to Mayo’s destination medical centers in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida.

Mayo first launched the Care Network in North Dakota in 2011. It also has member organizations in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and New Hampshire.

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