Learning to lead
UND Master of Public Health alumnus Matthew Campion takes on a leadership role for a Critical Access Hospital in South Dakota
Matt Campion didn’t plan on being a healthcare leader at a hospital in rural Miller, S.D. In fact, he didn’t contemplate going into healthcare leadership at all until late in his college career. Yet, at age 28, he is serving as interim CEO of a 25-bed Critical Access Hospital (CAH) with hopes for a bright future for his colleagues and community.
Miller is a town of just over 1,300 people, located some 70 miles from Pierre, S.D. The rural hospital there was established in 1947 and became part of the Avera system in 2008. Avera Hand County Memorial Hospital’s most recent administrator, Bryan Breitling, served as the CEO for 21 years before a promotion within the Avera System to regional administrator caused the top seat to open up. Groomed for the position through Avera’s own Administrative Fellowship program, Matt Campion took the reigns as interim administrator in July of 2022.
Campion is a 2017 graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., where he earned his degree in healthcare administration. During his first two years of college, healthcare was not on his mind or in his plans for the future. “I sort of shifted between majors my first two years,” Campion said.
When his junior year of college rolled around, it was time to solidify some plans for after graduation. It was then that he really took time to reflect on his goals and motivations, and looked ahead to what he wanted to do in his career.
“I knew I wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” Campion said. “I reflected on the people who impacted me and what roles they were in. Some were in healthcare and others were not. I asked myself what area aligned most with my skills and abilities, and healthcare was the obvious choice. It makes an impact on people every day.”
Taking on a healthcare leadership position is a big job for anyone, let alone a budding young professional just a few years out of college. Campion, however, was well prepared. After graduating from Concordia, he simultaneously entered the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at the University of North Dakota (UND) School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) through distance learning, and began working for a health system in central Minnesota as a finance intern, then quality improvement manager. Going through the MPH program while working proved beneficial, as Campion was able to apply what he was learning directly to his job.
“The things I learned in class were immediately applicable to my day-to-day environment. Looking back, it helped me retain the things I was learning,” he said.
While in the MPH program, Campion also participated in the Rural Health Interest Group (RHIG) at the SMHS. RHIG offered him a chance to attend National Rural Health Association (NRHA) events that opened his eyes to rural advocacy and the impact young professionals can have on the sustainability and viability of rural communities.
“Rural has always been an interest area of mine. RHIG’s focus aligned with my interests, and I knew that if I wanted to make a difference in rural areas, I needed to understand what goes on in rural from a deeper perspective,” he said.
Further preparation for the job Campion would eventually hold in Miller included admission into the Avera Administrative Fellowship program in Sioux Falls, S.D. The fellowship’s 12-month program offered guided work experience in healthcare administration by immersing the participant in administrative roles and responsibilities.
“Overall, the fellowship is designed to provide a solid foundation for a participant to grow and learn so that once they are in the field, they can lead a facility successfully,” said former CEO Breitling. “It provides a framework for strategic thinking and a process for how decisions are made.”
“I feel extremely fortunate to have gone through the fellowship,” Campion said. “I gained a lot of resources that even some seasoned administrators don’t have. I always feel like I have someone to bounce ideas off of.”
Since the fellowship’s goal is to benefit both the fellow and the organization, Campion was tapped to lead the transition of one of Avera’s hospitals from a Prospective Payment System (PPS) to a CAH in Mitchell, S.D. After a long and arduous process, Campion’s successful completion of the transition proved that he could handle a bigger assignment, which was to take over as interim administrator at Avera Hand County Memorial Hospital in Miller.
Now, as a hospital leader, he maintains his focus and attention on rural viability and sustainability. “I stepped into a facility that has been a top-20 CAH (an NRHA award) for four of the past five years,” Campion said. His goal is to maintain a high level of care for the Miller community. “Thriving rural communities generally have a thriving healthcare system.”
While Breitling has changed positions within the Avera organization, he is still a part of Campion’s support system, and he knows his former workplace is in good hands.
“I think generally all leaders have a difficult time taking the next step and leaving behind a team they developed or nurtured for a time. Having young and energized leaders like Matt interested in stepping in and growing helps in that process, knowing that the team is being taken care of and is continuing to offer high quality and compassionate care,” he said.
As a new professional, and a new member of the Miller community, being the new kid on the block certainly comes with challenges, said Campion, especially in the wake of a pandemic. Navigating constant change while maintaining a positive big-picture outlook can be overwhelming at times. He credits his team members and their steady commitment to the success of the facility.
“I try to keep things in perspective,” he said. “I am the newbie, and there are team members who are more experienced. The old style of leadership – the thought process of ‘I am in charge and I make the rules’ – does not work here. We work as a team, decide as a team, and it’s an ‘us, together, for the good of the facility and community’ mentality.”
As a college junior at Concordia, Campion chose a healthcare career path because it aligned with his goal to make a difference in people’s lives every day. The people he wants to help certainly include patients, but through his current role, Campion works toward the goal of making a positive difference for his colleagues, too.
The most rewarding part of his job, Campion says, is the relationships he has built with colleagues. “I didn’t understand or value relationships in the work setting until I started the fellowship,” he concluded. “I realize now that, yes, this is work, but these are people. They have value. You begin to care deeply for the people you work with, and then it’s easy to get up and work because you all have each other’s back.”