Mackinac Straits Health System President and CEO Rodney Nelson is all about finding creative solutions to the challenges facing his organization.

It’s how he transformed a once-struggling critical access hospital and nursing home into a comprehensive rural health system for the people and communities he serves in Michigan’s upper peninsula.

And it is why the AHA on Dec. 15 named Nelson the recipient of its 2016 Rural Hospital Leadership Award. The AHA will present the award to Nelson at the AHA and Health Forum Rural Health Care Leadership Conference, which will be held Feb. 5-8 in Phoenix.

Nelson says unique partnerships have helped the hospital bring better health care to its community.

The hospital is located in St. Ignace, a town of about 2,500 residents and a county of 11,000 at the northerly end of the five-mile Mackinac Bridge – the world’s third-longest suspension bridge. The Straits area is flecked with picturesque islands that draw vacationers in the summer. The area also is the home of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who more than 40 years ago were awarded lands in trust and fishing rights in the Great Lakes. 

When Nelson became CEO in 1999, the old Mackinac Straits Hospital – a tiny Hill-Burton facility built in the 1950s – struggled to meet its community’s health needs. The hospital’s board grappled with whether to shut it down or find a way to finance a new, larger and up-to-date facility.

Enter the Sault Tribe, which had close ties to the health system, and were dissatisfied with its own overcrowded health clinic. The tribe donated a 16-acre parcel of land valued at $1.2 million for a new hospital, and entered into an innovative joint arrangement to include a tribal health and human services clinic inside the facility.     

Encouraged by the area’s congressional delegation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development community program then provided a starter loan – $10.4 million at 4.25% annual interest – and backed a conventional bank loan of $26.8 million to help finance construction of a new hospital. Another $3 million was raised in private donations from the community.

The new two-story, 82,000 square foot hospital opened in 2010. It included an emergency room with an indoor ambulance bay, a state-of-the-art laboratory, two X-ray rooms with digital mammography, outpatient procedure rooms, 15 private acute-care rooms, expanded dialysis and chemotherapy services and the tribal health clinic. The tribal health clinic has a traditional medicine area, facing east in accordance with custom, and specially vented for ritual smoke.

“It took relationships with legislators in Washington, D.C., and in Lansing, Michigan, and the tribe and community and business leaders to bring this together,” Nelson says. “It comes down to those special relationships and that is why we were successful.”

Another step toward providing more comprehensive care came through a collaborative effort with Mid-Michigan Health System in 2013 to form Midland Michigan, a state of the art outpatient surgical suite center. 

In 2015, the health system entered into an affiliation with Traverse City, Mich.-based Munson Healthcare to gain access to a broad range of Munson services. Nelson says the affiliation is helping Mackinac recruit physicians, bolster its information technology (IT) capacity and expand retail pharmacy services throughout the region.

Given the changing health care environment, smaller rural hospitals increasingly will need to pursue some type of affiliation strategy with larger systems to remain viable and ensure community access to the best possible care, Nelson says.

“We have chosen the affiliation route because we believe it’s great to have local control and ownership,” he says. But he says greater integration into Munson Healthcare’s IT network could signal a closer relationship down the road.

Success means being “passionately persistent in pursuing your goals,” Nelson says. He is proud of the way our organization strives to “put our patients and communities first.”

“We try to set an example here,” he says. “It’s a passion to do the right thing.”