The Alley Newspaper’s Editor, Harvey Winje, recently interviewed Gordon Sprenger, the former Abbott Northwestern Hospital President and CEO of Allina. The purpose of the interview was to talk with Sprenger about earlier attempts of Abbott Northwestern Hospital to develop ongoing, intentional relationships with the community. The expressed purpose was the mutually beneficial coexistence of the institution and urban community in a time of rapid evolution beginning in the 1970’s within the health care industry.
Gordon Sprenger’s first job within the health care industry began after getting a masters degree in Hospital Administration from the University of MN in 1961, a hospital residency in Milwaukee, WI, and 3 years of running a hospital in San Francisco while in the Air Force. His first job at Northwestern Hospital was in 1967 as Assistant Administrator. He became the Administrator shortly after Abbott and Northwestern Hospitals merged administratively in 1970. He was President/CEO of Abbott Northwestern (A/N) from 1971 to 1995. He served simultaneously as President/CEO of the newly formed LifeSpan (forerunner to HealthSpan), and eventually, Allina, until 2002.
During his time at Abbott Northwestern, Gordon Sprenger began a Community Advisory Committee in 1969. This group of neighbors and hospital leaders met monthly. Sprenger and the Board Chair of the Hospital also met quarterly with the Chair of the CAC Committee. Harvey Winje served as the Chair of the CAC for six years from 1981 to 1987. The CAC was disbanded much to the immediate neighborhood’s dismay in 2008.
ALLEY: Why did Abbott Hospital and Northwestern Hospital merge?
Gordon Sprenger: “The increased sophistication of healthcare personnel and the technology that was emerging necessitated larger facilities with more ability to absorb the changes practically and financially. It was a tumultuous time internally because not everyone agreed with consolidating into larger institutions. For example, doctors at Abbott appreciated their smaller facility and didn’t want to merge into the Chicago Ave site. In many ways, I agreed with them. We all liked the intimacy of a smaller institution. It allowed for great apple pies that were homemade in the kitchen at Abbott Hospital. I’m a small town guy. I like going into the grocery store where people know each other. If one goes into a grocery store now, no one knows each other. But, it wasn’t going to be possible to stay alive in the healthcare industry maintaining small hospitals.”
ALLEY: What are some examples of other major changes to health care institutions which occurred during your tenure?
GS: “There were financial changes and opportunities that became apparent such as the advantage of being able to negotiate with larger purchasers of healthcare (insurers, large employers, etc.,) on a regional basis whereas singular hospitals and clinics couldn’t do that. Also, with the tremendous explosion of medical technology and programmatic advancements in medicine, you needed the scale of volume of patients to afford the investments, which couldn’t happen in small institutions. Metropolitan Medical Center Inc., had been formed in 1966 as a cooperative system linking St. Barnabas and Swedish Hospitals and the latter merged with Mt. Sinai Hospital. We formed LifeSpan in 1982 to be that sort of centralized bargaining unit and healthcare provider. There were subsequent mergers; for example, with Health One (which included Metropolitan Medical Center at that time) so we became HealthSpan in 1993, then became Allina after merging with an HMO called Medica in 1995 to be an integrated healthcare system. And, finally, that was split into two entities, Allina and Medica, in 2002.
ALLEY: What is Allina?
GS: “It is a ‘not for profit’ parent company of various hospitals and clinics spread within the central cities and outstate that are owned by the Allina corporation. These hospitals include: Abbott-Northwestern and Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis; United in St. Paul, Unity in Fridley, Mercy in Coon Rapids, St. Francis Medical Center in Shakopee, and many clinics within the city and throughout the state. “
ALLEY: You didn’t mention Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of MN
GS: “Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of MN is not owned by Allina and never has been. They have always been independent.”
ALLEY: Speaking of Children’s, we have spoken with Dr. Arne Anderson, a pediatrician and the first CEO of Children’s. As you know, Dr. Anderson was hired before Children’s built their first building one block north of Northwestern in 1969. Arne said that it was the Junior League of Women that started the effort to build a specialty children’s hospital. Many of those same women were the daughters of some of the women who presided on the board at Northwestern Hospital which was always an all- women board until 1969. This relationship led to a cooperative understanding evidenced by the fact that Northwestern supplied heat from its heat plant to Children’s for 25 years and provided the food service. Anderson also mentioned that hospitals were against there being a specialty children’s hospital because that would diminish a hospital’s delivery of healthcare to the whole family. Dr. Anderson went on to say that hospitals actually fought the start-up of Children’s Hospital. That opposition apparently didn’t deter Dr. Anderson. He was first and foremost a doctor for children. In fact, he insisted on spending half of his time serving children in the neighborhoods whose families couldn’t afford healthcare and only half of his time on administration. Even though children would no longer be specifically served by Northwestern, was this penchant for service part of what allowed Northwestern to be open to the development of Children’s?
GS: “Yes, Northwestern was open to that development and it wasn’t as hard for us because Children’s would be in the next block so it seemed that we weren’t “losing” our pediatric unit, just having it move down the street.
ALLEY: You’ve mentioned the tumultuous times internally with mergers. Were there also problems externally with the physical changes and growth of the hospital campus?
GS: “Yes, there were many concerns on how large the health care institution would become.”
ALLEY: Was the Northwestern Community Advisory Committee your idea to help address those concerns?
GS: “Yes, along with Joyce Krook, A/N Community Relations Director, and some of the community leaders. We needed a way to get opinions of the neighborhood and have a dialogue. There were many divergent groups and individuals so it was difficult to get a broad cross section. In the beginning of the Community Advisory Committee, (CAC), there was a State law requiring a Certificate of Need for any significant physical expansion, amongst other requirements which required local neighborhood review.”
ALLEY: I recall there being a time during the era of deregulation under President Reagan, where the Certificate of Need requirement was eliminated. But, even though the CAC was no longer required, why wasn’t it abandoned?
GS: “By that time, the committee had fulfilled new purposes of communication. In fact, involvement with the committee was the “root” of our broader neighborhood engagement that eventually led to participation in the Phillips Partnership, Midtown Greenway, and the Midtown Exchange. At out first meetings involving A/N, Honeywell, officials and politicians from Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis, we were surprised to find out that most of them had never met simultaneously before to address these urban issues.”
ALLEY: Allina has encountered criticism because of the demolition by Children’s of a whole city block of housing except for two homes. This was further aggravated by the comments by Children’s CEO, Dr. Alan Goldbloom, at a City Council Committee hearing about the community’s fight to save the Olivet Methodist Church building on the south end of that same block. Goldbloom referred to the wonderful work that Childrens does for an “…unlivable neighborhood.”
GS: “I’m not aware of how that came about. In the 80’s and 90’s we had an agreement about the development of that block, but needs and times change. I hadn’t heard about that comment by Dr. Goldbloom.”
ALLEY: Some people miss the relationship with you, Arne Anderson, Gene Torrey, (former Facilities Manager of A/N) and many, of course, with Joyce Krook. I think this may prevent them, at least partially, to being open to the Backyard Initiative because the relationship became personal and now there is a sense of loss that needs to be transcended. These same people held some of the “institutional memory” that you mentioned earlier that can be easily lost. In your opinion, how much of the “corporate-community relationship” needs to be personal rather than just system-to-system? If personal, at what level within Allina do individuals need to be involved in the BYI? Right now, Allina has hired staff people to work with the BYI. But, for this work to become institutionalized, what would need to happen?
GS: “Of course, Joyce and Gene became “the face” of the hospital. I’ve kidded Dick Pettingill about starting a new program relating to the community and then leaving. [Editor’s Note: Allina CEO following Sprenger in 2002. Pettingill followed through on previous intentions to move Allina back to Phillips and into the Midtown Exchange. He started the Backyard Initiative but then retired shortly thereafter in 2009] My hope is that his passion and the passion of people like Gene and Joyce for the involvement of Allina in the whole area can be maintained by the new leadership through the new program. I am confident they will!!