Published on July 22, 2022

An Interview with Dr. Bill Heegaard

william heegaard smiling for camera

“I think it is a true privilege to care for people—and I am not just talking about doctors, but the entire healthcare team." Dr. Bill Heegaard said. 

Where are you from originally and how long have you worked for Essentia? 

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and went to college in Portland, Oregon. I took a year off and worked in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand with the International Rescue Committee. 

When I returned to the USA, I did research in psychiatric epidemiology and later received my Master of Public Health. I then went to medical school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and worked for Hennepin Health System from 1991 to 2020. 

I started at Essentia in April 2020, right at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had to cut salaries and positions right away, as well as manage all of the operations. It was a real challenge, but I was immediately impressed at how everyone was so solid and focused on the Essentia mission and values. 

What made you think of a career change? 

I had advanced over the years both clinically and administratively, but I wanted to do more. I had an opportunity to help the HCMC emergency department and enjoyed the work—then I became assistant chief, and later I was asked to become very involved in the business at Hennepin HealthCare System. Eventually, I was selected to become the HHS Chief Medical Officer. But I knew I had more to give at the next level. 

When the timing was right—our daughters were leaving home—my wife and I decided that Essentia Fargo was the right fit. I knew I needed to work for an organization that had a strong, palpable mission. 

You had mentioned that you still practice, is that correct? 

Yes, I still work in the emergency department (ED). I work every Thursday unless I need to travel for work. One Thursday a month I work in Detroit Lakes ED, and the other Thursday I am in the Fargo ED. I do the whole spectrum of clinical emergency medicine: adult, pediatric, trauma. I love clinical emergency medicine and have never gotten tired of it. I truly feel it is a privilege to care for patients and their families. 

What do you think makes Essentia “like nowhere else”? 

It is a combination of our mission, our values and where we provide care, which is northern rural Midwest America. We overcome long distances and true barriers to access so that we can serve our communities, big and small. People are very thoughtful in developing intentional ways to keep community and patient commitment at the center of all that we do. For instance, as of today, there is a Life Link III helicopter in Detroit Lakes because we knew this would improve outcomes for our patients. This took years to plan. 

Essentia is unique in being deeply committed to consistent, reliable high quality—both to what it means for patients as well as being accountable to meeting our very demanding quality metrics. Essentia really lives this commitment, and it has some of the best quality outcomes in the states where we provide care. 

Which of Essentia’s values is most important? 

I think respect is the most important value. It is at the core of all that you do. You can make an argument for every one of the values, but respect is the most important in my mind. Respect occurs at the highest level at Essentia—and it cascades down as respect for patients and families, respect for patient care, and respect as colleagues, especially in this time of COVID-19. 

What do you think is most special about each of the West Communities where there is a Foundation? 

Detroit Lakes: They are very close-knit community and group of caregivers. There is a strong sense of community, it is a gorgeous setting, and they have an outstanding hospital and campus that just excelled in their recent commission accreditation. U.S. News & World Report just named Detroit Lakes as one of the top 20 small community hospitals. Essentia Detroit Lakes is the hospital for the community. 

Fargo: We are fulfilling niche specialty and primary care roles really well, and we provide super-high quality care—the best in North Dakota. We have certain programs—like our comprehensive stroke program and Level II Trauma Center—combined with really strong surgeons and great primary care, that is recognized as outstanding. We are growing. We gear these programs to the needs of the community. 

Ada: Ada has an outstanding and beautiful critical access hospital that serves the community and surrounding areas really well. They have the prettiest physical therapy facility I have seen. 

Graceville: I love going to Graceville. I have joked that is where I want to go when I die. It is a classic American community, right out of Norman Rockwell. They have a nursing home that serves alongside their critical access hospital. 

Fosston: Fosston and the surrounding communities are fully engaged and committed to their community and Essentia. I was just up there a few weeks ago. Their First Care Medical Foundation is separate from Essentia, but they are outstanding partners who are working hard to make their community thrive. We are expanding our orthopedic, podiatric and general surgery presence in Fosston. 

How did you get into health care? 

I think it is a true privilege to care for people—and I am not just talking about doctors, but the entire healthcare team. 

My father had a twin brother, William Heegaard, and he was a family physician who served the entire Alexandria community for 40 years. That’s where he raised his family. 

I knew I wanted to be a doctor ever since I was 9 years old because I admired my uncle. He once told me: “When someone doesn’t know you, but they hand you their baby and say, ‘Take care of the most important thing in my life,’ there is nothing better.” I am truly honored to care for patients and work to improve the health of the community.


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