CEO Tom Crowley says Saint Elizabeth Medical Center’s efforts to create a culture of wellness throughout rural Wabasha County, Minn., is a way for the 20-bed critical access hospital to achieve its mission and live its values.

“It is a very important part of our ministry,” Crowley says. “It has been since our sisters founded the hospital in 1898. They always embraced the community.”

The hospital’s wellness and prevention initiatives for a county of some 22,000 residents include a hospital-based family exercise and wellness center; a comprehensive healthy lifestyle and weight-management program; a network of education programs and resources to help residents manage their chronic diseases; and a healthy eating and exercise program aimed at helping elementary schools tackle childhood obesity.   

That commitment to a healthier community is why the AHA today presented the Carolyn Boone Lewis Living the Vision Award to the hospital.

First presented as the Living the Vision Award in 1998, the award honors hospital leaders who advance the AHA’s vision of a society of healthy communities where all reach their highest potential for health. In 2002, it was renamed the Carolyn Boone Lewis Living the Vision Award in memory of the community leader who in 2000 became the first hospital trustee to serve as an AHA chairman.

Saint Elizabeth Medical Center’s journey to wellness began more than a dozen years ago with “Wellness Works,” an exercise and healthy eating program for staff and family members. It provided a number of incentives to encourage employee participation.

The program worked so well to reduce cholesterol, blood pressure and sugar levels that the hospital soon expanded the concept to area businesses.

“One of the main things we wanted to do back then was to make people understand what is your good cholesterol, what is your bad cholesterol, what is your sugar level and so on,” Crowley says. “We had good programs that would help people.”

Success led to community services like an onsite family wellness center, biometric screening and health risk assessments, clinical consultations and coaching, tobacco cessation and replacement products, a healthy lifestyle series, medication therapy management, chronic disease management, and a range of other wellness, education, and physical activities and resources.           

“We have stepped up our efforts to focus on community health improvement as a strategic initiative,” says Jenny Schlagenhaft, the hospital’s director of community relations and communications. “It’s a countywide partnership of many different business organizations and agencies. We try to integrate wellness into everything we do in Wabasha.”

Those stepped-up efforts are reflected in Wabasha’s health ranking among Minnesota counties.

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in 2013 that Wabasha County ranked 40 out of the state’s 87 counties on overall health status. This year, Wabasha County moved up to 15 in the annual health assessment of Minnesota's counties.

The annual ranking report is intended for counties across the country to identify health shortfalls and implement solutions. It includes measures to predict the future health of communities through topics such as graduation rates, access to healthy food and the number of teenagers giving birth.


5-2-1-0 for healthier kids. The medical center partners with area schools to follow the 5-2-1-0 message promoted by Let’s Go! – a program developed by 2014 AHA NOVA Award winner Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

In Wabasha County, the initiative encourages more than 800 elementary school children to have five or more fruits and vegetables each day, two hours or fewer of recreational screen time, one hour or more of physical activity and zero sugary drinks. The message is reinforced throughout the community.

“When you see 500 children in an auditorium on a Monday morning and they are excited about exercising and eating healthy, that just sends chills down my spine,” Crowley says.

Partnerships with farmers and vendors at the Wabasha Farmers’ Market have improved access to local foods in schools and restaurants.

Low-income residents receive free produce at the farmers’ market through a voucher system supported by the hospital and the Wabasha Area Community Resource Center.

With grant funding, the hospital also partnered with the farmers’ market on “Order Up Healthy,” an initiative that aims to make healthy eating the easy choice when dining out.

“Our goal is to meet people where they are and help them live the best life they can,” says Crowley. “It’s been a great journey.”

 Hear Crowley talk about what it takes to build a culture of health in a rural community.