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Sanford Health begins $300 million initiative to improve rural healthcare access

With the endowment, it is expanding its graduate medical education program, investing in community health and building a virtual hospital.

Mallory Hackett, Associate Editor

Photo courtesy of Sanford HealthPhoto courtesy of Sanford Health

A $300 million donation to Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Sanford Health will allow the health system to embark on an initiative to improve rural access to healthcare, the system has announced.

Denny Sanford, the health system's namesake and local businessman and philanthropist, gave the contribution, bringing his total giving amount to Sanford Health to more than $1 billion.

With the endowment, Sanford Health is expanding its graduate medical education program, investing in community health and wellness and kicking off efforts to build a virtual hospital.


The first portion of its initiative will create eight new medical residencies and fellowships in specialty areas, Sanford Health said.

Rural communities have long struggled to recruit and retain healthcare professionals. While about one-fifth of the U.S. population lives in a rural area, only about a tenth of the nation's physicians are found there, according to the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

By strengthening its opportunities for medical personnel, Sanford Health hopes it can bring sought-after clinical expertise, resources and new specialties to the area so patients don't have to travel far to receive high-quality care.

The initiative will also contribute to further developing the Sanford Sport Complex located in Sioux Falls to promote community health and exercise. Plans for the complex include new baseball, softball and soccer fields that will offer year-round athletics for all ages.

"Making our communities stronger and healthier is at the core of everything we do at Sanford Health," said Micah Aberson, executive vice president at Sanford Health. "We're committed to meeting the broad needs of our communities through investments in quality-of-life and health-and-wellness initiatives that support the people who live and work across our region."

The final aspect of Sanford Health's new initiative is building a virtual hospital that will deliver medical services throughout the system's 46 hospitals, 208 senior living communities, 210 clinic locations and 158 skilled nursing and rehab facilities.

"This initiative will transform the healthcare experience for those in rural areas, bringing affordable, comprehensive and seamless medical care to people no matter where they call home," said Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, chief physician at Sanford Health.

Planning for the virtual hospital is already underway. The system expects to announce more details and an additional philanthropic donation in the next year.


Sanford Health underwent a number of strategic changes at the tail end of 2020. It announced plans to merge with Salt Lake City, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare in October to create a network of 70 hospitals across Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

But about a month after the merger was announced, Sanford Health cut ties with longtime president and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft over his refusal to wear a face mask. Bill Gassen, the former chief administrative officer, filled the role of CEO.

The health system subsequently called off the merger with Intermountain after the leadership change, and Gassen said the system was refocusing its priorities to internal matters.


"This initiative will allow us to bring transformative health care opportunities to the rural Midwest," said Bill Gassen, president and CEO of Sanford Health.

"We're focused on thinking big and pursuing bold, innovative endeavors to meet the needs of our patients, our people and the communities we serve. This effort will position Sanford Health as a global leader in rural care delivery, [and] allow us to bring top clinicians to our region and enhance the health and well-being of the communities we serve."

Twitter: @HackettMallory
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