Shawn Lerch’s health care philosophy was formed at Blackhawk Technical College.
It’s a philosophy that sees patients as people and clinical tasks as gifts, an approach in which practitioners feel blessed to be able to help another human being.
Lerch, CEO of Sauk Prairie Healthcare, received Blackhawk Tech’s 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award in December for using his degree to launch a successful career in rural health care.
Like many BTC students, the Albany native didn’t follow a traditional path. After high school, he joined the U.S. Navy. He knew he was interested in health care, and after researching all of his choices, he decided on BTC’s physical therapy assistant program.
Lerch said people such as Ilene Larson, who started the PT assistant program, and nationally known teacher Sue Griffin made the program what it is: rigorous, relevant and—most important—humane.
Griffin gave students “extraordinary skills and confidence” while instilling an old-fashioned sense of what it means to be a caregiver, he said.
“They would bring in patients in whatever disease state,” Lerch said. “It was real life. You learned compassion. You’re not treating a number; you’re not treating a symptom; you’re really treating a human being.”
Although he graduated more than 20 years ago, Lerch still remembers a patient who had become a paraplegic after an accident.
“To learn their story was so powerful, to learn what they went through in their health care experience,” he said. “It really made an impact on the entire class.”
Students were taught that working with patients involves more than checking a box saying they’ve completed a task. They needed to connect with the person and his or her family members who might become caregivers.
“It’s about how we work with that person, how we learn about their health care needs,” Lerch said.
Lerch did his clinical work at Columbus Hospital—now known as Prairie Ridge Health—and got a job there. His work caught the eye of CEO Ed Harding, who recognized Lerch’s leadership potential and encouraged him to continue his education.
How often does a CEO see leadership potential in a physical therapy assistant? When would a CEO even see a PT assistant at work?
“That’s what I’ve loved about smaller, community-based hospitals—that sense of community, that sense of family,” Lerch said. “I got to see the entire leadership team, including the CEO, on a regular basis. They were at quality control meetings and served on process control committees.”
After getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Lerch was named vice president of facility services at Columbus Hospital and went on to become the CEO of Miners’ Colfax Medical Center in Raton, New Mexico.
It was big shift for him. The hospital was in a very rural area—even more so than tiny Columbus.
“We were 15 miles from the Colorado border,” Lerch said. “We were the only OB services; we were the only ICU for 100 miles. We had to provide quality care with very few resources.”
Lerch enjoyed living in New Mexico, but when the opportunity came to lead Sauk Prairie Healthcare, he took it. His wife’s family is from the Black Earth area west of Madison, and it was a good fit for them.
At Sauk Prairie, he entered a culture that was already committed to the kind of connected care—person, not patient—that he learned at Blackhawk Tech.
Dr. John McAuliffe, a family care physician at Prairie Clinic in Sauk City, has worked in rural health care for more than 41 years.
“The overriding principle (at Sauk Prairie) is that of connections,” McAuliffe said. “Connections are the most important therapeutic tool we have in medicine. I don’t care if you’re a pediatrician, an OB-GYN or a surgeon. You have to have that relationship with the person. It’s simply positive regard for the person—you take the judgment out of the relationship.”
Under Lerch’s leadership, the hospital earned a Guardian of Excellence Award from Press Ganey Associates, a company that measures patient satisfaction. To win such an award, a health care system has to consistently perform in the top 5% of all of Press Ganey’s 26,000 clients.
Sauk Prairie’s leadership already understood the importance of relationships. For Lerch, it was a lesson learned at Blackhawk Technical College that he never forgot.