Will Nicholson: We will reimagine St. Joe’s as a community hub of health and wellness

30December 2020

I am lucky to have grown up in a place like White Bear Lake where people care about each other. I see it in my neighborhood, my grocery store and in the hospital units where I care for patients. This concern for one another led me to build my life’s work around improving the health of the community I grew up in. I completed my medical training in the East Metro. I now live and practice medicine just a few miles from my childhood home.

As a leader at St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. John’s Hospital and Woodwinds Hospital, I know that M Health Fairview’s commitment to helping our patients thrive is unwavering. For my entire career, our mission has been promoting optimal health for everybody – no exceptions.  It is this mission that guides our efforts to transform care for our patients, our neighbors and our families. Building a more affordable, accessible, and equitable health system requires us to face our community’s biggest challenges head-on.

That mission compels us to make changes at St. Joseph’s. The reality is, far too often, St. Joseph’s Emergency Department was providing the wrong care in the wrong place at too high a cost. More than 72 percent of visits to our ED were considered potentially preventable – indicative of patients delaying needed care. There is no question that our hospitals and emergency departments play a critical role in this community.  But we know that the needs of our community cannot all be met by hospitals and emergency departments alone, no matter how heroic the effort.

Too many of my patients have made miraculous recoveries from illness, only to relapse or worsen because the support they need once they left the hospital or emergency room simply wasn’t there. Hundreds of conversations with community members, leaders, partners and health care providers to better understand the needs of this community have shaped our plans to build a more holistic health ecosystem so we can stop that cycle.

We must continue to evolve to meet the needs of our community today, providing care options that are affordable, accessible, and equitable. The needs of the East Metro are much different now than in 1853 when St. Joseph’s was founded to address a cholera epidemic. To truly improve health and reduce costs for our patients, we must focus not on preserving the status quo, but instead on understanding and addressing the needs of today.

The pandemic has shown us how capable we are at adapting and finding solutions that meet urgent community needs. When COVID-19 struck, we built the only exclusively COVID-19 hospital in our state in record time, developing a best-in-class cohorting approach to care. We rebuilt primary care around virtual technology which allowed us to break down the barriers our patients had to receiving great care.

We developed drive-up testing and curbside care options, and partnered with Ramsey County and the state – as well as churches and community organizations – to deliver more than 20,000 free COVID tests in locations across our neighborhoods.

When in-person visits became challenging, we built private telehealth “phone booths” at St. Joe’s and Catholic Charities so technology access wouldn’t prevent people from getting needed mental health and chemical dependency care. And we leveraged our Mobile Substance Use Disorder Support team to bring clinical staff to patients who need them most.

When our growing unsheltered population faced another winter of suffering and were at risk for COVID exposure, we knew what they needed was a warm bed, not a hospital bed, so we partnered with Ramsey County to transition Bethesda Hospital into housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Since its founding, St. Joseph’s has been a force of transformation, constantly partnering with our community to serve its changing needs. We are proud to continue that legacy.

In St Joseph’s next chapter, we will continue to deliver world class COVID-19 and mental health care, expanding our existing Mental Health and Addiction Clinic at St. Joe’s with the addition of transition care, a particularly critical period of a person’s recovery. This new service doubles our clinic’s capacity and will provide same-day access to mental health and addiction services with therapeutic and supportive care, and helps avoid having to access this type of care in an emergency department.

We will reimagine St. Joseph’s as a community hub of health and wellness, with a focus not only on affordable and accessible primary care, but on addressing the social determinants of health – the vast majority of health and well-being is driven by factors outside of traditional healthcare, like access to nutritious foods, and safe and affordable housing.

While our COVID and mental health teams continue to serve at St. Joseph’s, many of the doctors and nurses you know from St. Joseph’s are now practicing at other locations throughout our system. Those same doctors and nurses will continue to utilize our unique access to academic medicine and groundbreaking research targeted at benefiting our community’s unique population. Research and education are what we do, and training the next generation’s healthcare leaders is our commitment to improving the care and outcomes for the people we serve.

Transforming a system that hasn’t worked for far too long for far too many people is hard. It is especially hard for a community that values tradition. But as someone with deep roots in our beloved east metro community, I know these changes are not only needed, they will improve our ability to deliver breakthrough care for our patients. I couldn’t be prouder of the way that M Health Fairview is stepping up to meet the challenges we face Our vision is a health system that improves health and wellness, leverages innovation, brings breakthroughs to the frontlines of care, and breaks down disparities. That is something we can all be proud of.

Dr. Will Nicholson is a hospitalist with M Health Fairview and vice president of M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Campus, St. John’s Hospital and Woodwinds Hospital.

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