Surgery Center Delivers Healthcare With Heart

Dakota Eye Surgery Center in Bismarck, ND

Image Credit: Outpatient Surgery Magazine

Shortly after opening the Dakota Eye Surgery Center in Bismarck, ND in June of 1998, co-founding ophthalmologist Charles R. Volk, M.D. knew that his facility needed more heart. Having initially hired a surgery center administrator that was quite capable, but a bit regimented, Dr. Volk realized that to achieve his aim of a patient care experience that was far more nurturing and neighborly than a typical hospital, he would need a very different approach.  He then recalled that a hometown friend, Mary Radke, was making a name for herself as head of a surgical unit about 75 miles away.  Perhaps she would consider joining him?

Mary was glad to hear from her old friend, despite that joining Dr. Volk would involve a 150 mile round-trip commute each day.  But even more importantly, she had lots of ideas on how to create a surgical environment that would be far more caring and compassionate than the standard hospital experience.  Dr. Volk and his colleagues brought Mary on board in September 1998 and then got out of her way.

Central to Mary’s approach was her ability to see things from the patient’s perspective.   “Patients assume the surgery is going to be top-notch, but they’re still nervous. Patient satisfaction, in this day and age, comes from the way patients are treated,” she explains.

In Mary’s view, that starts with the hiring process at the Center. “When we were hiring, I wasn’t interested in whether people had worked in a surgery center,” she adds. “I was interested in getting people who had a genuine interest in patients and in people.”   In addition, many employees are local to Bismarck, and really know the community and patients. “Our receptionist was born and raised here, and I think she knows half the people in Bismarck. She greets many of them by name.”

Dakota Eye Surgery Center has also developed some fairly unique methods of care. Upon arrival at the center, a staff member carefully explains and answers questions prior to surgery from both the patients and their families, often calming them enough that sedation is not required for their procedure. The patient’s family is then led to a viewing room where they can watch the surgery and have additional questions answered, all while relaxing with cookies, coffee, and juice.

Even more surprising, every patient receives a personal, postoperative follow up phone call from their surgeon or nurse within 24 hours to answer any questions and check on the recovery process.  In addition, before heading home, every patient receives a hand signed card from their surgeon and every member of the staff, thanking them for their visit and wishing them a speedy recovery.  From start to finish, it’s an approach that goes well beyond the medical requirements of each case to also look after the comfort and emotional needs of both patients and their family members.

Not surprisingly, patients and their families love all the special attention they receive from the surgeons and staff at Dakota Eye Surgery Center.  In fact, an astounding 98.9% of patients have consistently rated their experience at the Center to be Outstanding, or a five on a five-point scale.  This level of care and patient satisfaction has not only earned Dakota Eye Surgery Center a stellar reputation in the region, but also national recognition recently.  In September, the center was awarded the prestigious 2015 OR Excellence Award for Patient Satisfaction by Outpatient Surgery Magazine.


However, patients haven’t been the only ones benefiting from these unique methods.  Dakota staff members love being a part of such a caring environment as well.  In fact, ten of the Center’s original employees are still on the staff seventeen years later.  Staff member retention is so high that the Center has only had to hire new employees to keep pace with geographic expansion.  “All of our surgeons are also proud to be part of such a caring and competent team,” explains Dr. Volk.

Radke adds, “I had a new employee say recently, ‘I’ve never worked anywhere where everybody is so happy and so friendly and so willing to work together.’ That’s what we want. If you keep your employees feeling that way, your patients are going to feel that way, too.”

As a result, the surgical practice has been thriving as well. Since the surgery center opened, the organization has expanded from 45 to 119 employees, nearly tripling in size. Perhaps more impressively, this growth has been propelled by enthusiastic patients, with over 48% of new patients having been referred by friends or family members during the past year.

Key insight:

Despite all the medical protocols and standards of care that govern the healthcare industry, it seems that the principles of warmth, compassion and thoughtfulness that are critical for patient trust, satisfaction and loyalty are often in short supply.  However, when these are combined with high quality medical care, truly remarkable patient care and outcomes can be achieved, as demonstrated by this award-winning surgical center in North Dakota.

Ideas to Consider:

  • Hire for Goodness Over Skill: Like the Dakota Eye Surgery Center, many organizations with outstanding employee and customer loyalty readily admit that they hire primarily on the basis of “goodness” and cultural fit, rather than prior experience or job skills. They explain that it’s much easier to teach the necessary job skills to new hires than it is to instill the genuine care and concerns for others that is critical to their organizational success.
  • Consideration Before Automation: Unlike many medical facilities that have automated the patient check in process with kiosks and tablets to minimize staff and labor costs, Mary Radke employs dedicated greeters to welcome patients and their families, check them in and look after their non-medical needs throughout their visit. This upfront investment in human care and consideration pays for itself many times over through lower patient acquisition and retention costs.
  • Balance Competence With Warmth: Like many fields that involve specialized knowledge and skills, the practice of medicine places primary emphasis on the clinical competence and outcomes of the care provided. While this is certainly necessary for effective treatment, it falls far short of what patients require for emotional well-being, satisfaction and loyalty.  The most effective physicians and other technical professionals recognize that an equal emphasis on thoughtfulness and compassion greatly amplifies the impact of their efforts.