Network Spotlight: Montana Health Network

March 2018
Montana Health Network

Network Name Montana Health Network
Location Miles City, MT
Key Contact Chris Hopkins, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development

To support and influence the evolution of healthcare organizations, and enhance the well-being of individuals and communities through:

  • Networking to establish bonds and trustful relationships between healthcare executives
  • Shared services and shared products to bring value through cost savings and efficiencies
  • Research and development of products and services

Chris Hopkins, VP of Strategy and Business Development with Montana Health Network, was interviewed by the Network TA team to share information on the network’s characteristics, key learnings, accomplishments and challenges.

Q: In a nutshell, how would you describe your network?

A: Montana Health Network is a mechanism for our hospital members to explore unique and collaborative solutions for their problems. It's an opportunity for us to help those facilities maximize what they're trying to do as they meet the health needs in their communities while helping with their overhead headaches or issues that are not health-related. Montana Health Network works to bring those facilities together to work on common problems and to help resolve them.

Critical access hospitals make up the largest bulk of our membership. They each are unique but have the same voice in directing the efforts of the network. With the network, they also have the opportunity to create things outside of their traditional hospital environment.

Q: What benefits do network members receive?

A: Initially, the drive to create services was always around cost savings. That’s still a primary factor today, but above and beyond the cost savings, they get resources that they just don't have at their small rural facilities. They also get the opportunity to collaborate with one another, to create something bigger and stronger than what they might be able to create on their own. They can tap into a lot of different people with a lot of different skill sets, without having to necessarily employ those people.

Temporary staffing is one of our core business lines that we share among our facilities. We have an employee health plan, workers’ compensation trust, 401(k), and a liability insurance exchange that our members use as well. We use third-party vendors for some of our shared services; however, our strongest products are all homegrown.

Another advantage of the network is that our members all have a voice. Whatever we do, our board is well engaged, and each service line has its own advisory unit where our members are able to express their concerns or guidance or direction or support in each of those service lines.

Q: How do you go about identifying the needs of your members?

A: Prior to my ten years of being with the network, I’d always worked in hospitals. In many ways, hospitals are like big ships. They take a long time to turn. Sometimes they’ve got changes that they have to make, and they need an avenue to be able to do it quickly.

In our annual face-to-face strategic planning session for the network, we do in fact review our long-term goals and a long-term vision of where we need to be and how we need to position ourselves, but at the same time we're making sure that our short-term projects are resolved very quickly. “Okay, what are your needs? Where can we plug in? Where can we make something happen that will make those smaller facilities' lives easier as they continue to provide quality health care?”

We get together in these sessions and a lot of ideas get tossed around. Not all of them make it to fruition, but by the end of the strategic planning session, we generally have a good consensus of where our hospital CEOs want to go and what they need. We work to accomplish that task for them in the coming year. We're not re-evaluating ourselves or reinventing ourselves every year, but we're certainly reinventing the products that we're bringing to the table or the services that we're able to provide.

Q: What challenges do you face working in rural health care?

A: In rural health care, it seems like there are a ton of unfunded mandates. That's a struggle for our facilities, and it's a struggle for us to be able to provide a solution. Just because you can collaborate on something doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to make it work all the time. Another of our more popular service lines revolves around education. Usually when budgets are short, that's the first thing that's cut at the facility level. By the time you get the funding for patient care, and take care of their needs, and take care of their supplies, and take care of their outcomes, there's little left to continue moving forward with education. Yet, it's one of our most successful programs in terms of appreciation from our facilities. It’s a little bit of a tightrope. We've been able to receive outside grants, work with other options, and look at different ways in which we can continue to provide quality clinical education and ongoing education to the staff at our facilities.

Q: On the positive side, what are the advantages of working in your rural area?

A: That's a good question. Personally, the rural environment in Montana cannot be beat. Whenever I drive to one of our member facilities, I think, "This is exactly why I'm here.” There are challenges in rural, but everybody is very grateful. Everybody is easy to work with. Everybody is unified and focused on providing the best that they can for their community. As a network, supporting a hospital that's supporting a huge need in a community, provides a positive intrinsic value. Being able to show that our programs helped get a piece of equipment, or helped a hospital meet its goal and stay vital, or we helped a CEO so there wasn't CEO turnover every year in a facility, which led to continuity, which led to better patient care, is a great thing. You can really see where you're making a difference. We've had CEOs express to us that if it weren’t for our services or our help, they don't know where they would get this from or make such-and-such program work.

Q: What has been a surprising insight over the course of your network’s development?

A: Coming from a hospital background, I think networks allow more creativity, more flexibility, and more speed in terms of problem-solving. This is what makes networks such a great working environment. Mind you, we have processes in place and work things through with our board, but at the same time there's just a refreshing speed, flexibility, and a creativity piece that maybe you don't have time for in a hospital setting because you've got other hats to wear, or other deadlines to meet, or other things that you need to take care of.

Through board input, the network allows you to see things from a bigger perspective, more so than just, “We're a vendor that provides this and this and this.” On a bigger level, we're a mechanism for our facility CEO board members to accomplish all kinds of different things. That really gives you the opportunity to tap into resources that you've never tapped into before. It gives you the opportunity to think creatively, maybe make a few mistakes along the line, but you can still come out of those mistakes okay. I credit that to our CEO Janet Bastian, who was instrumental in operationalizing Montana Health Network to begin with. She has instilled the right corporate culture for the type of work the network accomplishes, and it's worked very, very well.

Q: Based on your experience as a network leader, what advice would you give to a developing rural health network?

A: Even though I have talked a lot about creativity and flexibility, at the heart of Montana Health Network is a rock-solid, i's-dotted, t's-crossed organizational structure and bylaws that allows that to happen. There was a tremendous amount of detail work that went into creating the network early on that allows us to be flexible now, if that makes sense. I think that's step one: you've got to have a rock-solid organization.

From the get-go, our network was very much established on sustainability and the ability to keep itself in operation going forward. If your network is designed to resolve one issue and then you resolve that issue, then what? Early on, you need to start thinking about sustainability and what that's going to mean, both monetarily and in terms of projects and opportunities to resolve those projects.

Those are two very basic but important elements in the structure piece. When you get those out of the way—you have an avenue for sustainability, and you have a rock-solid organizational structure—then that gives you the flexibility to be more creative or to change your vision or to play with the fun things. We've looked at everything from a concrete solution, like mobile MRIs (we still have part of that business), to buying houses for temporary staff workers when we had an oil crunch and people needed housing, to developing a dating site or something like that to help keep our staff in rural Montana. These are topics we’re allowed to talk about. Not all of them come to pass, of course, but at the same time, you're given the creative time and creative space to look at that.