M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

The Murdock Trust invests in capacity-building projects at nonprofit organizations across the Pacific Northwest. When one grant helps create new opportunities and increases the impact of a nonprofit’s work down the line, we call it the ripple effect. The Stories of Impact series on our website is intended to help shed light on the outcomes driven by some of the outstanding organizations the Murdock Trust has been fortunate to support in recent years.

For the six thousand people who live in Polson, MT, it takes over an hour to drive to the nearest large hospitals in Missoula or Kalispell. This distance, coupled with a set of challenges facing Polson communities such as poverty, acute mental health conditions, and a high rate of drug use, mean that many people can’t and won’t travel far for healthcare. This is why Providence St. Joseph Medical Center (St. Joe’s) serving Polson and the surrounding region is of critical importance. And it’s why having new 3D mammography equipment at their location is saving and improving the quality of lives for more than a thousand women each year.

A shot of a medical clinic from outside at sunset.

New Equipment for Better Care

In 2018, Providence Montana Health Foundation (Providence Montana), which exists to provide support to the Providence hospitals and clinics in western Montana, applied for a grant from the Murdock Trust for new 3D mammography equipment for St. Joe’s. Though the medical center previously had 2D equipment, radiologists were frequently recommending that patients travel to Missoula or Kalispell for a 3D mammogram, which can more accurately see cancerous spots behind dense tissue. Not only did this add travel burdens to those who often couldn’t leave behind work or family for a trip into the city, but it created unnecessary anxiety and fear around inconclusive results and false positives.

“One impetus behind the grant was that [with new 3D equipment] we would have a significantly lower number of false positives,” said Megan Beard, philanthropy officer at St. Joe’s.

And that’s exactly what they saw. With the 2D equipment, the clinic completed 924 screening mammograms from July 2016 to July 2017, with 82 false positive results. With the new 3D equipment, from 2020 through the end of May 2023, St. Joe’s completed over 3,700 3D mammograms. Across all those years, there were only six false positives.

A nurse smiles at a patient near a 3D mammography equipment

Additionally, 3D mammography equipment can catch cancers at a much earlier stage, resulting in less intense treatment and a faster return to normal life.

“If we didn’t have this technology here,” said Devin Huntley, chief operating officer at St. Joseph’s, “a lot of these women wouldn’t find the tumors until they were palpable. By then, they’ve moved from stage one to stage two to stage three, and they’ve progressed to where it becomes a much more radical procedure than it might have been if they’d been able to detect the tumor early.”

“Not to downplay cancer, because it’s still a life-changing event,” said Megan, “but it’s a much less significant ordeal for these women than it would have been had it been another year before we caught it.”

Now, most of the care can be completed at St. Joe’s with an oncologist from the Providence network who comes to do chemo once per week. “We’ve really created a home for them here, where they don’t have to travel much,” said Megan. Providence Montana knew that investing in high-quality equipment that could be available locally would help create a culture of healthcare that the women of Polson would actually use, and they were right.

“This equipment, it actually saves lives,” concludes Devin.

Two nurses smile while operating a 3D mammography machine

An Expanded Mentality of Opportunity

Every grant application includes goals, all of which were met and exceeded with Providence Montana’s purchase of the 3D mammography equipment. But often, there are lasting impacts of projects like this that go beyond the identified metrics. For Providence Montana, the greatest unexpected result of this grant was an expanded network of support.

“[The grant process] truly does create a structured path for success,” said Fran Albrecht, chief philanthropy officer at Providence Montana. “It has allowed us to grow our capacity to invite others to participate in these projects.”

Community donors are more willing to support projects that have guaranteed funding from foundations. “Knowing that Murdock would assist with finishing off the grant, it provided that much more of an opportunity for us to visit with folks and to inform them about our mission, our values, and our desire to ensure that folks from the greater area have access to healthcare,” said Fran.

It has also allowed Providence Montana to pursue additional philanthropic support from the donor base created with this project, which led to their best fundraising year to date. Around 90% of the donors who supported the purchase of this equipment went on to give to other projects, such as diagnostic imaging equipment.

“Especially with a smaller critical access hospital, [it can be easy] to live within that smaller mentality of opportunity, but this project really expanded that,” said Fran.

Two nurses place their hands on the back of a patient about to get a mammogram

A Model for Healthcare

In rural communities, quality healthcare is more than simply existing as a resource. It requires sensitivity to the social determinants of health, such as knowing how far and how often someone is likely to travel for a routine screening. Providence Montana’s investment in its region has given them a keen understanding of the factors at play in western Montanan communities, and its commitment to serve these people well is evidenced in the purchase of this 3D mammography equipment to better care for women in Polson, right from a Polson clinic.

To all those at Providence Montana who are working to create a culture of accessible healthcare for rural communities, thank you. May we all learn from your example and celebrate your success, and may your work continue to flourish!

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