Published: October 31, 2023 | Updated: November 7, 2023

Meeting patients where they are

Northwest Hospital CEO Rick Rasmussen and Director of Clinics Heather Claussen are building the hospital to reach more people where they are for ease of access to quality health care.

Northwest Hospital CEO Rick Rasmussen and Director of Clinics Heather Claussen are building the hospital to reach more people where they are for ease of access to quality health care.

Northwest Specialty Hospital was founded 22 years ago as a specialty surgical hospital, but now the company’s vision is to reach everyone.

“Our north star is our community,” CEO Rick Rasmussen said. “We want to help as many people in our community as possible and we want to employ as many people in our community as possible.”

The hospital started with 60 staff and performed 3,000 surgeries a year. Now it employs 1,000 staff members who will serve 350,000 patients a year, once construction is complete on additional wings.

“We kind of branched out a little bit at a time, as we needed to support our hospital,” Director of Clinics Heather Claussen said. “There were barriers for the hospital getting our patients into surgery because we couldn’t get them into the pulmonologist, we couldn't get them clearance from their family medicine, because there is a shortage of family medicine providers in town – and that's kind of a crisis nationally. So we thought, ‘We’ll start a little family practice.’ And then well, we need more.”

Claussen has been with the hospital since its founding and she watched as the direction gradually shifted from tailored services to broad reach. Both targets were always part of the underlying goal of serving the community. But the interpretation of that goal has shifted as the hospital’s capabilities and demand expanded.

Claussen said she had an interesting perspective. She worked with the hospital's founder and witnessed his goals of cutting through red tape to provide care to patients.

When Rasmussen came on as CEO in 2013, the guiding principle became affordable and accessible care to everyone.

“It’s not me, it’s our team, but I think I pushed for that,” Rasmussen said. “Why can’t we do more than this?”

So with support from the hospital’s board of directors, the hospital grew beyond surgeries and into broader care.

“We’ve expanded into Coeur d’Alene, into Hayden Lake, we built a building in Athol, and we purchased a company in Rathdrum,” Rasmussen said. “So if you look at Kootenai County like a rectangle, we have a location in all four corners.”

Rasmussen envisions that people see a doctor as easily as they go to a grocery store – a quick trip after work or a stop on an errands list. He also wants the experience to be comfortable, inviting, expert and inexpensive.

“We’re usually 40% to 60% less expensive than other health care systems,” Rasmussen said. “Not only do we want to have the highest quality, and we are one of four in Idaho that are a 5-star CMS hospital, but then to be 40% to 60% less expensive was by choice.”

Reaching people is the goal, so being expensive would be limiting. And in areas in which the hospital doesn’t excel, they outsource care. The oncology department is an example. For that type of care, Northwest Specialty rents space in the hospital to a world class oncology provider.

Quality care is an integral part of Northwest's values listed on the organization’s website. Other values include striving for excellence and defining professionalism. And the leadership team uses those core values to guide decisions.

“We really preach our culture,” Claussen said. “And we really don’t want to outgrow our culture.”

And the hospital’s culture is ambitious.

Claussen worked for years on Northwest Specialty’s anti-reflux minimally invasive surgery department to treat acid reflux patients.

“This was a grand idea from one of our founding fathers of this hospital, Dr. John Pennings,” Claussen said. “He wanted to have this here in North Idaho."

Pennings worked years to gather the equipment needed to back the department, so patients would be able to go to Northwest Specialty for everything they need for the surgery from start to finish.

“That was a lot of work,” Claussen said. “So we have in North Idaho a hidden gem.”

And Claussen looks on that department with deep pride in its success.

Another point of pride is the clinic in Athol.

“I worked on Athol,” Rasmussen said. “I was turned down multiple times and I just kept saying, you know when I was a kid there’s nothing out there. And I said let’s go out there.”

That clinic was responsible for saving a life Sept. 29, Rasmussen said.

“This person wouldn’t have lived if we weren’t out there,” Rasmussen said.

When deciding to open a new clinic or add an operating room, Rasmussen and his team make key considerations.

First, is there a need? Does it fit with the core mission? And can they find it?

The result, Claussen said, is quality care.

“The gratifying thing for me is we’ve gone from 60 employees to over a thousand,” Rasmussen said. “We’re able to give good paying jobs so that people can stay here to live and help people in our community.”