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Dawn Unruh is quite familiar with Southwest Kansas, moving to Meade in 1991 and moving back to that community with her husband in 2011.

Unruh has been a nurse at Meade District Hospital since 2011, taking a short break to teach in the nursing department of Seward County Community College from 2014 to 2020, all the while working as a nurse in the hospital.

Unruh would become the corporate compliance officer and staff educator at MDH, and she went back to school to get her health care administration degree, having already received a master’s in nursing education from Aspen University.

She finished the health care administration program in 2023, and after applying for the CEO position at Artesian Valley Health System, which includes MDH, she would become the head of the health system that year.

Unruh said AVHS is currently working on many things at the hospital and the health care system as a whole.

“We’re trying to work on improving the workplace culture,” she said. “We’re trying to work on our financial stability.”

Lone Tree Retirement Center in Meade was  a part of AVHS for many years, but control of that facility is now in the hands of another company. Unruh said this has helped Artesian Valley work on its financial recovery over the past year.

Unruh said getting contract staffing down has been a difficult challenge for many hospitals, including MDH.

“We’ve struggled since COVID to be able to have enough staffing to take care of our aging population,” she said. “We have an increasing aging population and a decrease in staff to be able to take care of them.”

Contract staff has been on the rise since the pandemic, and Unruh said this has created a shortage of nurses and radiology technicians at MDH. She added hospitals statewide and nationwide are seeing similar challenges.

“We’re looking internally at how we can become more efficient in our staffing, more efficient in what we do, changing some processes and still being able to provide that excellent care and not sacrifice that with efficiency, being able to take care of our community and take care of them well,” she said.

Recently, AVHS signed on to be an Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO) for National Beef.

“We’ll be one of their providers of choice, not the hospital, but the providers,” Unruh said. “Dr. Schowengerdt and all of our advanced-practice providers, our nurse practitioners and our PAs will be able to see patients from National Beef. That was a big thing for us to be able to take on that. When National Beef approached us and asked if we could do that, we said absolutely.”

Unruh said National Beef workers can be seen in the MDH clinic and have lab tests done there. At this time, AVHS is looking for a family practice physician, and the CEO said hopes are to have someone in that position by the end of 2024.

“We’ve ramped up our recruiting process in trying to find a new provider, a new physician to meet that family practice need we have for our community in Meade and the surrounding area, which would also be able to be added to that EPO,” she said. “That would be a big thing for those patients.”

Likewise, AVHS is looking to partner with other area critical access hospitals such as Liberal’s Southwest Medical Center. As a critical access hospital itself, MDH has an emergency room and outpatient surgery, and Unruh said hospitals need to survive together and figure out how to help each other.

“We’ve been talking to area CEOs at Pratt, even Mineola, Southwest Medical Center, Hays,” she said. “We’re looking to partner with them to do some telehealth. We’re trying to build up those relationships in order to be able to help each other.”

Unruh said this partnership could help with sending patients from hospital to hospital to be seen as patients, particularly those who need skilled nursing or swing beds closer to home.

“We can help each other in that way,” she said. “We’re looking at building up service lines and figuring out what we can do on an outpatient status, as well as looking at trying to figure out how to build our inpatient.”

Unruh said one major change in health care in her time in the industry is the decreasing amount of time patients spend in the hospital.

“Inpatient stays have become less and less, so we’re figuring out ways we can build some of those outpatient things like building up our surgery department, starting telehealth,” she said. “We’re looking at ways we can reach our community and get specialists to our area without them having to travel so far, especially when you start with the aging population and the difficulty that is for them to get that access to care.”

Naturally, being close to home was a major part of why Unruh chose to work for AVHS.

“It’s where I’m from, and I want to be able to give back to my community,” she said. “I’ve taken care of a lot of patients. I know many of the individuals within our community.”

Unruh said being CEO of Artesian Valley is a way in which she can still serve the Meade community and serve them well and to work to keep the hospital.

“It’s a necessity,” she said. “It’s a need for our community. It’s one of the largest employers we have in our community. You look at the schools, and you look at how that would affect the community in general. I wanted to be in a position where I could help influence change and also to be able to serve our community in a way to try to do what we could to keep our hospital.”

Unruh officially became CEO in March 2023, and she said thus far, her time heading up AVHS has been good.

“I have a great team,” she said. “We have an awesome health care team at Artesian Valley Health System. It comes with its challenges like any other leadership position, but nothing has been unexpected. All of the challenges have been things I anticipated facing.”

In addition to MDH, Artesian Valley also has three rural health clinics, one each in Montezuma, Plains and Meade, and despite having four facilities in its control, Unruh said she still sees AVHS as one system and one entity. She said it does not pose as many challenges as some may think.

“We look at it as all one team,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re all these separate pieces.”

Unruh said she has brought some of the experiences in her time prior to becoming CEO to the job.

“As a nurse having to critical think, use good judgement as you’re caring for patients, that comes with being a good leader and advocate for my patients, for our staff,” she said. “That’s part of what helps you grow in your position and in taking control of situations that sometimes are little bit out of control.”

Another step for Unruh was her time as an educator at SCCC.

“I was in elementary education prior to becoming a nurse,” she said. “I have that degree I graduated with in 2000.”

Unruh was a stay at home mom for several years before receiving her nursing degree in 2008, and she said having that education background has been big to be able to help educate patients, staff and the community on various issues.

“As a leader, so much of that education is a big deal to be transparent with people and to be able to educate what’s going on,” she said.

Unruh said her education background has been a big factor in how she uses her role as CEO, and knowing the clinical pieces from her time as a nurse has been beneficial as well.

“I’m able to understand what people are wanting in various areas within the hospital, what they need for them to be able to sit down and talk with our staff, our current position or where we’re at and to be able to educate them on what we’re facing,” she said. “Both of my degrees have impacted my position now as a CEO.”

Unruh said not many new programs have been introduced thus far, but some are being looked at for the future.

“We did have orthopedic surgery, and we’re looking at bringing that back to Meade,” she said. “We’ve had some conversations with some area orthopedics, and we’re working to try to bring that to our community again.”

AVHS is currently building up its pain management clinic, and anesthetist Bret Martin plays a big role in that.

“He does pain management through epidurals and RFIs (request for information),” Unruh said. “That’s been a good thing for our patients and for our surgery staff as well.”

Unruh said Artesian Valley’s EPO partnership with National Beef has been particularly big because of that company’s insured patients, which are different than Medicare patients.

“Those are a different payer mix we would have,” she said. “It’s going to be important to the sustainability of our facility.”

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