Dr. Nicholas “Nick” Wolter arrived at Billings Clinic as a pulmonary and critical care specialist. He retired 35 years later as one of the longest-serving chief executives of a Montana health care organization.
Wolter, 70, died Sept. 7 at his home near Pray in Paradise Valley. Colleagues will gather at 5:30 p.m. today at Billings Clinic Commons to celebrate his life. There is much to remember about Wolter’s leadership and passion for continuously improving patient-centered, physician-led health care in Montana.
Early in his practice at the Billings Clinic and what was then Deaconess Medical Center, Wolter helped introduce hyperbaric medicine to this region, providing better options for treating wounds and carbon monoxide poisoning. He headed the executive committee for the doctors’ clinic when it merged in 1993 with Deaconess and became one of three top leaders in the new organization. He gradually transitioned from direct patient care to full-time administrator and by 1997 was named CEO, a job he held for the next 20 years.
Wolter envisioned excellent patient care on the Mayo Clinic model. As the region’s only provider of inpatient psychiatric care, Billings Clinic became a national leader in psychiatric telemedicine — bridging the distance between psychiatrists in Billings and patients in rural communities.
Active in health care leadership at state and national levels, he served on the American Hospital Association board and on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare policy options.
Wolter advocated for health care reform based on quality of care, rather than quantity. He led Billings Clinic in efforts to reduce costs while improving care. Modern Healthcare magazine twice named Wolter to its annual list of most influential people in U.S. health care. He was seriously considered for appointment to head the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, but chose to keep working at Billings Clinic.
Perhaps Wolter’s most enduring legacy is his work on expanding medical education. Along with leaders of St. Vincent Healthcare and RiverStone Health, he led the Billings Clinic in a partnership that established Montana’s first medical residents: the Montana Family Medicine Residency based at RiverStone.
In 2014, under Wolter’s leadership, Billings Clinic started the state’s second medical residency and the first to focus on internal medicine. That doctor training program launched with a multi-million-dollar grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust.
Plans for a third medical residency started long before Wolter’s January 2017 retirement and came to fruition the same week that he passed away. The Helmsley Trust awarded another grant to help launch a psychiatric residency that will be a regional track of the University of Washington Psychiatric Residency and based at Billings Clinic.
Billings Clinic expanded its rural network during Wolter’s tenure, partnering with small Montana and Wyoming hospitals in various agreements that provided services such as management, physician recruiting and regulatory compliance.
Soon after his retirement was announced, the Beartooth Billings Clinic board of directors wrote a letter to The Gazette thanking Wolter for supporting the new hospital and clinic that opened in Red Lodge in 2010, saying in part: "His passion and involvement in formulating national rural health care policy provided us confidence we were building the model clinic for the future. His wise counsel to always provide safe, quality care accessible to everyone in our community remains our board’s focus.”
Dr. Bob Wilmouth, president of Rocky Mountain College, was still consulting Wolter for leadership advice last month. "He was a dear friend, he was a mentor, a leader. He made many lives better. He was a true hero and the world's running out of heroes," said Wilmouth.
Health care in Billings and throughout this region advanced because of Nick Wolter’s leadership. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.