University Medical Center, Fairview turns 10

Future plans for the medical center include a new $175 million children’s hospital.

Mike Enright

Merrilyn Dawson was apprehensive entering the doctor’s office April 6, 2006.

Perhaps that’s because the last time she was at the University’s hospital it was 1943, and she was a 5-year-old unintentionally making history as one of the country’s first successful heart surgeries.

Dawson, a retired school teacher, said she remembers being in the operating room and staring at a gallery filled with doctors and medical students.

“And before the procedure, I was examined by I don’t know how many interns,” she said.

Following surgery, she remained hospitalized for more than a week.

By contrast, her latest visit for a heart procedure could not have been more different.

“I was totally awake,” Dawson said. “At first it was a little frightening, not that anything was so terrible, but at my age I had never ever experienced that before, whenever I had had anything done you were out.”

The minimally invasive surgery was quick and easy, she said, and the 69-year-old was in and out in the same day.

“I heard (the doctor) say, ‘Well here it goes,’ and it couldn’t have been more than a second or two at the most and then he said, ‘It’s in, it’s perfect,’ ” she said.

Her story is an example of some of the progress made by the University Medical Center, Fairview, celebrating its 10-year anniversary this week.

On Feb. 1, 1997, the then-University Hospital and Clinic merged with Fairview Health Services, establishing the new center, said Dr. Gordy Alexander, medical center president.

The hospital has come a long way during its first decade, Alexander said, despite going through a few growing pains.

From the beginning, the merger faced resistance from University workers.

Afraid of losing their jobs, they held rallies and protests opposing the fusion. Some even filed a lawsuit, though the matter was eventually settled out of court.

“I’d say we have a good relationship now, our employee engagement has gone up, but at the time of change, everybody panics,” Alexander said. “I don’t think any of it was not expected, but if people looked back at it, the intensity of the emotions, perhaps, weren’t fully anticipated.”

Registered nurse Margaret Jenstad, a 35-year veteran at the University’s hospital, remembered a lot of confusion and uncertainty during the time of the merger.

“The nurses weren’t part of the decisions, so it was a really scary time,” she said.

Going from the familiar to unfamiliar was uncomfortable for many, she said.

And following the merger’s completion, the new hospital’s first few years in operation weren’t much easier, Alexander said.

“We really did start out in a survival mode,” he said. “We’re in a success mode now.”

Overall, the Fairview-University union has been “a very positive experience,” said Dr. Roby Thompson, CEO of University of Minnesota Physicians.

The group, also formed in 1997, is made up of doctors who are Medical School faculty.

Since combining, the hospital’s administration has worked well with the association, Thompson said, and has improved the productivity of the faculty working in the clinic.

“Fairview has been receptive to us as an organization by giving us more responsibility in managing the delivery of health care, and before the merger that didn’t happen,” he said. “And as a result of that, we’ve been able to improve the operations from a financial point of view. Ö And from a service point of view we think it’s been better for the patients and the doctors as well.”

Alexander said the medical center is proud of the progress it’s made.

“We have been able to use our investments to turn a very good hospital into a new very good hospital,” he said. “I think the cultures have melded a little bit, and I think it’s a stronger culture than it ever was before.”

The future

Highlighted by a new $175 million children’s hospital, Alexander said the medical center has no plans to slow down over its next 10 years.

Administrators plan to make better use of existing space – the hospital has 10 buildings that add up to about the size of the Mall of America, Alexander said. Future projects include planning for a new ambulatory care center and targeted growth in pediatric, behavioral and cancer therapy care.

“If we could dramatically grow in our oncology business, we’d be thrilled,” he said. “In the meantime, we continue to make improvements in processes of care.”

And while excited for the facility’s future, Alexander said the center understands the challenges that lie ahead.

In recent years, the trend of mounting health-care costs and growing populations of uninsured have put added pressure on hospitals around the country to become increasingly cost-efficient at a time when the demand for the type of care they provide is growing.

“The big concern going forward is Ö the current economic system sustainable?” he said. “And the sense from a lot of people is probably not.”

Alexander said he remains optimistic, though, that by the health-care establishment emphasizing a return to primary or preventative care methods, some of the costs might be curbed.

“I think as the public becomes more and more aware of that – and we need to take a leadership role in that – that I think that will also help drop the cost of care,” he said.