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Northland hospital is small in size, but huge in customer satisfaction

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A sign welcomes visitors to Bigfork Valley hospital in the Itasca County town of Bigfork. The 20-bed facility led all hospitals in a survey of patient satisfaction. (Photo courtesy Bigfork Valley)2 / 2

The CEO of the 20-bed hospital in the Itasca County town of Bigfork isn't given to understatement.

"If you want the best satisfaction, you've got to come to Bigfork Valley," Dan Odegaard said this week about the independent hospital he directs.

Odegaard, 50, has numbers to back up his claim. Since 2006, a federal survey has been sent to discharged patients across the country. Hospitals don't have to participate, but 3,984 do -- including 82 percent of Minnesota hospitals. This year's results were released Jan. 16 in the "Hospital Compare" section of medicare.gov.

In a state with the Mayo Clinic, with gleaming Twin Cities hospitals that have hundreds or even thousands of physicians, the hospital with the best patient satisfaction rating was Bigfork Valley.

And it's no fluke, said Sally Sedgwick, the hospital's marketing director. Bigfork Valley has been No. 1 in the state in terms of patient satisfaction every year since the survey began, she said.

Even in a national comparison, Bigfork Valley gives little ground. In 2013, Bigfork Valley was tied for first with a hospital in Redding, Calif.

Like a 'five-star resort'

The accounts of recent patients bring those numbers to life.

"I've been in a few hospitals in my day, but never have I had the quality of care and compassion that I had at Bigfork," said Patty Erven, 59, who had knee-replacement surgery there in December.

Like Erven, Len Rothlisberger, 63, lives about seven miles south of Grand Rapids and 50 miles south of Bigfork. His knee-replacement surgery took place there in January.

"It was like staying at a five-star resort," Rothlisberger said.

Erven and Rothlisberger made the trip to Bigfork because their orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Dan Baker, placed his surgical team there. But both raved about their experiences.

Erven, who just returned to her teaching job at Grand Rapids High School, talked about never having to wait more than 30 seconds for someone to answer her call light. She has had to wait as long as 20 minute at other hospitals, she said.

Moreover, her conversations with nurses left an impression.

"The fact that some of them drive over an hour a day to go to work because they love it there just speaks volumes to me about what kind of facility it is," Erven said.

Rothlisberger talked about being able to order food from a menu and having it cooked to his specifications. From his hospital bed, he said, he could look out and watch deer grazing and the Bigfork River flowing past.

And one day when it snowed, the staff didn't want Rothlisberger's wife to try to drive home, he said.

"They brought in a bed and made it up for her," he said.

Stable medical staff

The drive south to Grand Rapids is on Highway 38, a winding, scenic route that is anything but high-speed. The two-lane road serves Bigfork, a town of 469 residents about 120 miles northwest of Duluth, and the even-smaller town of Effie (population 123).

In an era in which many smaller hospitals are being swallowed by big health systems, what is it about Bigfork Valley that seems to work?

"They have been very innovative," said Terry Hill, executive director of the Duluth-based National Rural Resource Center.

Years ago, Bigfork Valley was one of the first rural hospitals in the country to build an assisted-living facility adjacent to the hospital, Hill said.

The hospital also has stability in its small medical staff, he added.

"In the late 1980s, they were able to track three physicians that have basically stuck around," Hill said. "There's a very strong connection between the medical staff and the community."

Bigfork Valley has four family physicians and a surgeon on its staff, Sedgwick said.

Rothlisberger, retired as principal of Grand Rapids Middle School, said he saw a similar connection in the late 1990s when he was the principal in Bigfork.

"It's the center of the community," he said of the hospital. "It's the hub as far as employment goes."

New operating room

Baker, the orthopedic surgeon who brought Erven and Rothlisberger to Bigfork, at one time performed operations in four regional hospitals. Until about a decade ago, the operating room at Bigfork was old and inadequate, he said.

"I told the administrator this is not a safe place for me to do orthopedic surgery," he said.

To his surprise, the hospital responded by building a new, state-of-the-art operating room.

Baker not only stayed with Bigfork Valley but chose to perform all of his operations there, except for outpatient procedures at his practice in Grand Rapids.

"I chose where if my parents ... had a choice of where to go, this is where I would have brought them," he said.

Under Odegaard, he said, Bigfork Valley "takes care of people the way they should be taken care of and still makes money."

The hospital, with revenue of about $30 million, actually didn't make money last year, but was "very close to breaking even," Odegaard said.

"You've got to remember we've been building a lot so we have a lot of depreciation in our finances," he said. "But we were able to stick away a million dollars in reserve last year, which is a testament of strength, I think."

Rothlisberger describes Bigfork Valley hospital as "a small, warm, friendly, cozy experience."

Baker calls it a "bright, compassionate, caring, attentive place."

"It's a unique place that you wish you could spread around to all the other hospitals," he said.