Departing Mercy CEO Dignum remains bullish on health care

There’s a tsunami headed toward America. It’s massive, it’s scary and if you look at it from the wrong angle, it appears unstoppable.

Kirk Dignum just retired from Mercy Regional Medical Center after 14 years as president and chief executive officer. Being out of the way of this tsunami has certainly made his life easier. But if you’re wanting to hear doomsday talk from an insider who believes that time is nigh for workable health care in the United States, go visit someone else.

“It’s going to be an exciting decade of change,” Dignum says, relaxed in sweatshirt and jeans in his Three Springs home. He’s texting with a friend, making plans to go mountain biking.

We’ll get back to why he’s so stoked about health care. And we’ll talk about the changes at Mercy during his tenure. But perhaps the biggest achievement simply was lasting 14 years – way beyond average for a hospital CEO. It helped to have roots in the area and experience in several aspects of health care and human relations.

Dignum, now 61, is a Denver-area native and 1973 graduate of Fort Lewis College, where he packed Purgatory’s slopes on foot for a free pass. He left town for a decade, to get a master’s in Texas and a doctorate in medical anthropology and gerontology in California. But he was back in Durango by 1982, enjoying a laid-back, outdoor-oriented lifestyle.

He worked with a software company, and was a management consultant who specialized in doctors’ practices. After three years as Mercy’s vice president of ambulatory services, he was appointed to the hospital’s head role on an interim basis in September 1998.

It wasn’t a position he was yearning for, and at the time he was noncommittal on a permanent role: “I have a wife and two kids,” he told the Herald then. “If the job takes 1,000 hours a week, then I don’t know ... ”

His mother, dying of cancer, convinced him to go for it full time. Don’t waste your God-given talent, she told him. Well, what’s a boy to do?

After a national search, the Mercy board gave him a permanent job as president and chief executive officer in September 1999.

State Sen. Ellen Roberts, who served on the Mercy board of directors from 2000 to 2006, says many won’t fully appreciate all the balls he had to juggle to keep the hospital solvent.

“He put in so many hours,” Roberts says. “If stress counts for hours, he put in triple time.”

Dignum says he can divide his Mercy CEO tenure into three “careers.”

His first task was to help the struggling hospital achieve financial stability. After his first couple of years, Mercy was back in the black.

Next was figuring out what to do with an old facility that was falling apart. After convincing Catholic Health Initiatives to make a $76 million loan, and in partnership with the Southern Ute Tribe, Mercy broke ground on a new facility in 2004 in Grandview.

After the hospital’s completion in 2006, Dignum says he focused on the operational side, improving quality.

The top achievement was, of course, the new hospital, right?

“Not even close,” Dignum counters. “The hospital’s just bricks and mortar. The biggest challenge I had at Mercy was changing the culture to be one of high performance and high quality.”

He and his management team set about making Mercy a top-notch facility where its nearly 1,000 employees are generally happy to work.

“One of the things I’m proudest of is I think we pulled that off,” Dignum says.

He’s talking in the past tense, but the truth is he hasn’t totally left the hospital business. He’s working for Centura Health, now Mercy’s parent company, as a part-time consultant. It entails travels to Denver, Centura’s base. His official title: senior vice president of system initiatives.

OK, so Mercy is financially stable with a grand, still relatively new facility and happy workers. But that won’t matter if only the rich can afford health insurance.

On paper, the situation is grim. About 16 percent of Americans don’t have health insurance. In many places, including Durango, even if you are insured, it’s not easy to find a primary-care doctor. Then there’s the specter of baby boomers reaching Medicare age – 11,000 per day, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. On top of that, diseases such as childhood diabetes have reached near-epidemic proportions. Is that a towering tsunami, or what?

“Kids can’t afford what we’ve created,” Dignum says, thinking of his and wife Ginny’s two daughters, Megan, 25, and Kelsey, 23.

So the system needs to change. And he believes it will. It’s beginning to happen already, he says, but slowly. The key is incentives. We need systems that monetarily reward health-care providers and insurance companies for keeping people healthy. Mercy, for instance, could save a lot of money by preventing the need for the uninsured to use its emergency room for nonemergencies.

“We’ve been very good dealing with sickness, but we’re terrible at dealing with health care,” Dignum says. Health care must change its perspective from sickness to health, he says. It must intervene sooner to keep diseases such as childhood diabetes from occurring. And health-care providers and insurance companies must be at financial risk to keep clients healthy.

“That’s a fundamental, paramount, wonderful change that is going to happen,” Dignum says. “It’s going to be painful. It’s going to be extremely painful for health-care execs and the nursing ranks and the physician ranks. But it’s the right thing to do, in my opinion, because it will hopefully lead to better health for our citizens, and that’s what we all want. ...

“I think you’ll see a transformation in health care in the country in the next decade which will be phenomenal.”

From his modest home in Grandview, this modest man leaves his most difficult and rewarding task with one wish: “The only thing I could ever ask is I hope I left (Mercy) a little bit better than when I found it.”

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column. His wife works in Mercy’s trauma services department. Coming soon: Tom Gessel, Mercy’s new chief executive, talks about his vision.

Kirk Dignum Enlargephoto

Kirk Dignum

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story