Former Resident To Lead Medical Centers
WILLMAR, MN – As president of the Minnesota Medical Association from 2013 to 2014, Emmetsburg Iowa native Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith crisscrossed the state, talking to doctors in towns large and small, listening to their concerns, their frustrations and their hopes.
Over and over, she heard the message: Doctors just want to take care of patients.
Preserving the value of patient care will be among her foremost goals when she becomes president of Affiliated Community Medical Centers Jan. 1.
“What do we do to succeed? That’s what I want to keep in mind all the time,” Smith said.
Smith was selected this summer to lead one of the largest privately owned medical groups in the state, with 800-plus employees and more than 170 physicians and allied practitioners representing upwards of 40 specialties.
The leadership change comes as Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of ACMC, steps down. Holmgren, widely respected and liked as a leader, is retiring at the end of this year after more than three decades in family medicine and 15 years as the organization’s president.
The president is one of the most visible positions at ACMC, representing the physicians on committees, in meetings and business negotiations, implementing board policy and serving as the face of the clinic in the community.
Smith, a dermatologist at ACMC for 25 years and the first woman in ACMC’s 44-year history to be named to its top position, said she has had plenty of preparation for her new role. “I have been volunteering, for lack of a better word, forever,” she said.
Right after completing her dermatology residency, she applied to join the teaching faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
“That’s allowed me to get out and meet a lot of people and learn what’s going on across the state,” she said.
Leadership positions with the Minnesota Medical Association, as well as nine years on the ACMC board of directors, gave her more opportunities to connect with others and widen her exposure to the challenges in health care both locally and nationally.
Dealing with the pressures and changes facing medicine has become a top issue.
Physicians are used to change, Smith said. But she saw during her travels around the state that the pace is accelerating. A growing paperwork burden is eroding the time doctors can spend on patient care and isn’t necessarily leading to better care, she said.
“The administrative burdens facing our physicians are overwhelming,” she said. “Prior authorization has gotten to be overwhelming. Reimbursement is decreasing from all payers. I think those are all immediate challenges.”
Closer to home, attracting and retaining doctors and other qualified health professionals is becoming more difficult, she said. “It’s a challenge to get these individuals to come to rural Minnesota.”
Her foremost goal is to help ACMC stay focused on delivering good care that keeps patients healthy.
“I want to preserve that. I think that’s really important,” she said. “ACMC is a physician-run, physician-led organization for a reason. You understand what it means to take care of patients. Every day you go to work, that is your primary mission. As a group we feel we can do a better job. We decide based on what’s right for patients.”
She’s especially passionate about rural medicine, calling it “one of the most fulfilling career paths you’ll ever have.”
“This is a great place to live, a great place to work, a great place to raise children,” she said.
Since the announcement in July of her selection as Holmgren’s successor, Smith said she has been “learning and learning and learning exponentially.” She’s taking courses in administrative leadership, sitting in on meetings and doing lots of reading.
All the physicians at ACMC who hold administrative positions also continue to see patients and Smith plans to do the same, although she will spend fewer hours in direct care.
The transition from full-time clinical practice to administration will probably be the greatest personal challenge, she said, but she’s ready for it.
“I’m going to strive to do my best,” she said. “I think it’s a job that’s going to demand a lot of energy and a lot of passion. I don’t think it will ever be one where you stop learning.”