Healthcare Academy

The School Without Walls

Photo by Kris Kathmann

Henderson web-based industry leader educates and trains healthcare professionals

Blink and you’ll miss.

Healthcare Academy overlooks the city of Henderson. A homely, handmade sign showing the letters “HDD” leans into a window of this 114-year-old Historical Register site at the corner of Eighth and Minnesota. The sign faces Eighth Street, so most passersby driving up steep Minnesota Street hill never see it. Since “HDD” is no longer the company’s name, the sign, if seen, really wouldn’t help most first-time visitors anyway.

On the surface at least, this place appears to be just another painted-white brick residence with an old-style front porch alongside dozens of other like homes in historic Henderson. In fact, nothing tips anyone off that this “home” is the national headquarters of an industry leader developing high-tech sales training software programs for medical device and healthcare powerhouses like Medtronic, Kimberley Clark, Boston Scientific, Novartis, and McKesson. And it develops Internet distance learning programs for thousands of hospital and nursing home employees.

It’s Henderson’s best-kept secret.

“Today, our business has two arms,” says chief executive officer Judy Hoff, emphasizing today as if next month Healthcare Academy could have three or four divisions. A Henderson native, she is the founder of this ten-year-old business primarily fueled and fed by the Internet. She says, “The first arm is our custom shop that provides blended learning solutions for medical device and healthcare companies. The other side of our business is delivering on-line learning to employees of nursing homes and hospitals to meet their learning and continuing education requirements.”

Right now Hoff speaks—or rather carries on a relaxed repartee—while in her casual second-story office that doubles as Healthcare Academy’s boardroom. It was once a bedroom. The entire building itself has the ambiance and hearty glow of a close-knit family home, perhaps that of John Boy Walton, with a reddish candle flickering on the entryway stove and creaky wood floors and with employees allowed to bring their pet dogs to work. The Hoffs have a lab. No cats, please.

In 1970, after graduating from Henderson High School and Swedish Hospital School of Nursing, Judy Hoff went on to work in the cardiology unit of Metropolitan Medical Center. In time she would become the Center’s head cardiology nurse, teaching other nurses and caring for open-heart surgery patients. Soon after moving with husband Ron back home to Henderson in 1976, she was hired as director of education at St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee, providing physician and nursing education for the community and hospital. Both she and Ron began commuting to the Twin Cities for work before it was considered, in her words, “avant garde.”

Hoff says, “I had grown up on the family farm north of Henderson. My dad was a dairy farmer owning numerous farms and cows. In 1976 we built a new home on what was a cow pasture on my parents’ farm.” She and Ron, a former technical writer with Cray Research who joined Healthcare Academy soon after Judy founded it in 1995, still live in the same home built on that cow pasture. Judy’s widowed mother and brothers live within shouting distance. The Hoffs’ daughter lives nearby and works at Healthcare Academy.

“I liked both education and nursing,” she says. “As a little girl, I always wanted to be a nurse. I loved it, but learned quickly I also enjoyed educating patients after heart attacks to help them recover. At St. Francis, I also enjoyed taking all the new people in the department under my wing and teaching them all I knew. I loved medicine, and teaching, and my career moved in that combined direction.”

In 1986 after ten years at St. Francis, she was recruited to Redline Distributing, a medical supply wholesaler later purchased by distributing giant McKesson, to set up its sales training department. She taught sales people there how to better sell products to physicians and nurses, and to help them better understand the ins and outs of hospitals and nursing homes. She also developed education programs for the “nurse customers” of some of Redline Distributing’s product lines. She did so well at it that in 1992 a Pfizer cardiology division recruited her to set up its sales training department. After three short years there, she got the itch to start her own consulting company in Henderson that would quickly grow into a full-blown nationwide business, now called Healthcare Academy.

And today, her old Pfizer boss works for her.

“I left Pfizer in 1995 when realizing that I loved start-up situations,” she says. “I had gone to St. Francis and started its training program. I had gone to Redline and started that one, and then Pfizer’s. I realized I enjoyed setting up training departments. So I just built my own business around that.”

So she founded Healthcare Documentation and Development (HDD). From almost the onset, she says, she felt in “over her head” because of a relatively large business volume and a need for a highly capable person to complement her skill set. Minnesota then as now was a hotbed of medical device manufacturers and Hoff had the experience, extroverted personality and medical background to effectively market her services. Husband Ron, a professional technical writer, soon came on board to help write for clients. Of course, back before the Internet, her business was engaged exclusively in the “custom” arm of her business that targeted medical device companies.

“Ron wrote technical projects involving medical and computer technology,” she says of sales training programs that were designed usually for new product introductions. “Today, we have a similar process in which I gather information and do a first draft. Then Ron takes it and rewrites it to sound intelligible. He has that ability. Between the two of us, we did a nice job on projects.”

She quickly discovered, and still finds, that most medical device companies don’t have any programs or organized processes to effectively train salespeople or educate medical professionals on product use or benefits. She says, “I’ve especially always enjoyed helping sales representatives to be able to talk comfortably with physicians or nurses. It’s difficult for someone never having been in a hospital lab to engage in a conversation with a medical professional about a really high-tech product—unless they have been trained to do just that.”

She says sales representatives play key roles in getting potentially life-saving medical devices the crucial face time they need with front-line decision makers. Hoff through her printed training programs began teaching salespeople to focus their sales calls on the patient’s needs and on medical science—to get into the physician’s head—rather than thinking about or discussing their own personal agendas. She also taught salespeople to present their product in a jargon easily understood by the medical mind.

“All the physician really cares about is the patient and her recovery,” says Hoff. „We have tried to teach sales representatives to be client- rather than ego-centric.” Her style of sales training strategy is unique in the industry, she says.

Healthcare Academy, then as now, will train a person from a medical device company for an initial two weeks followed by in-field training with sales representatives and managers, and then advanced training. That person becomes the medical device company’s trainer. Healthcare Academy does hardly any on-site training itself.

In 2000, adjusting to the Internet revolution, the company changed its original Healthcare Documentation and Development name—which stood for “HDD,” the initials on the homemade sign leaning against a front window—into “Healthcare Academy.” That year, the company began immersing itself in the rising waters of the Internet, a high tide that would affect every facet of its business—from the way it handled custom work for medical device and healthcare clients, and sales presentations to prospective clients, to its timely creation of a new e-learning arm so employees at nursing homes and hospitals could train or earn continuing education credit.

“Before 2000,” says Hoff, “we basically only wrote projects for medical device companies to launch new products, writing the paper ‘course ware’ for the salespeople, physicians and nurses. And the salespeople were taught in a classroom by a teacher.”

And today?

Its medical device and healthcare end customers, who are mostly sales representatives, learn a slew of interactive lessons on-line before even reaching a classroom for additional training. The approach increases learning and saves money. Healthcare Academy calls it a “blended learning solution,” mixing on-line distance learning with subsequent live teacher training and traditional coursework.

The other arm of their business, which involves continuing education training for employees of nursing homes and hospitals, has always been exclusively online. As for it, Hoff says, “We develop online curriculum to sell to hospitals and nursing homes. When a person in a hospital needs to do their annual training, they can go right to the Internet.”

Healthcare Academy’s medical device and healthcare-related customers include some heavy hitters in the healthcare world, including Boston Scientific, McKesson, and Medtronic. Its nursing home and hospital distance-learning customers, on the other hand, are clustered for the most part in North Dakota and Minnesota, with about 4,000 people signed up for training to fulfill continuing education requirements. The University of Chicago is one large client outside the region.

The Academy has grown so rapidly because it has what many larger players in the industry don’t have, accreditation. And it didn’t come easily. Accreditation from the American Nursing Credentialing Center is a time-consuming, exhausting process, and once accredited, a company must stay on its toes because spot checks can come any time. “We’ve met all the standards,” says Hoff, “and one of those standards is for us to issue a certificate of participation to people finishing our e-learning courses. Accreditation helps us get business because most of our competitors don’t have it.”

Perhaps due to a lengthy accreditation process and to the upfront expertise mix a company must have in order to be credible, Hoff says her industry has only ten major players. And the market for the service is “huge,” she says. As for her company’s industry ranking, she noted an America Healthcare Association convention two years ago in which the eight major distance-learning companies were rated. Hers made the top two, having been rated according to its learning management system, content, and mode of production.

“But the ultimate way to judge our performance is when we go head-to-head against bigger companies and frequently get the business,” she says. “We win many of the proposals, again, because we have medical backgrounds, have good content, and our systems run well. Our pricing is pretty competitive, too. It’s a funky thing, this company out here in rural Henderson, Minnesota. The Internet allows us to compete with some really big hitters.”

The company employs seven full-time employees, mostly software developers, and that number doesn’t include part-timers and contractors.

Healthcare Academy isn’t easy to find. Visitors must first get to Henderson, no small feat given the town’s awkward exit off US 169 and the long and winding road up Minnesota Street hill to the white-painted brick building. There probably isn’t that much of an incentive for the company to replace the “HDD” sign with “Healthcare Academy,” even though its name officially changed five years ago. The truth is it receives few visitors in Henderson and even fewer customers. The Academy is a technology-driven company almost exclusively using the Internet to sell itself nationwide. Hoff’s travel schedule has been reduced significantly the last five years because the Internet has been doing the “traveling” for her. The company doesn’t do hardly any on-site training out of state, which would also require airline travel.

“It’s so much more efficient now going online and sending an Internet presentation to a potential client clear across the country,” she says. “There’s no need to fly everywhere anymore. We also do telephone conferences with clients all week long using the Internet.”

The company has to work closely with clients in order to develop their software. But again, much of that work can be accomplished over the Internet.

As for finding potential employees with the right backgrounds to intelligently work closely with clients from the get-go—that just doesn’t happen. “We have to start from ground zero with everyone brought in,” she says. “We hire software developers out of school and have to teach them the e-learning concept. We did have one developer come here from an e-learning background, which is the exception rather than the rule. He helped us get it off the ground.”

“I have a good balance in life,” says Hoff of her life in general. “I’m naturally wildly extroverted, but have learned to tone that back. That ‘wildly extroverted’ stuff is tiring. I have a nicer balance now of time for myself and time to get things done. I’ve worked to balance that well.”

She says her natural personality is also “open-ended,” meaning she prefers not having closure on work or personal projects. Realizing that tendency, she often must lean on husband Ron, who is inherently more structured, and a very organized employee on staff who keeps “everything in order and on deadline,” she adds.

She especially craves variety on the job, and new projects to tackle—the reason she began her business in the first place in 1995. “But I’m not getting bored,” she says. “Every project now is different and I get variety. When I get new projects I think how much fun they will be. So I throw myself into them.”

Husband Ron and exceptionally strong family ties keep her more settled in her personal life away from work. Judy Hoff’s mother still lives next door on the family dairy farm, brothers live close by, and their daughter, a dietitian and former Twin Cities salesperson, works for the Academy.

Says Hoff, “I live in the best of worlds. I work with my husband—and he and I have been together forever. My daughter and former boss at Pfizer work here. We have a great team. And it’s so much fun being able to choose whom you’re going to work with.”

And as this interview comes to closure, Hoff escorts the writer down creaky wood stairs, past the flickering reddish candle atop the stove, and out onto a nineteenth-century wrap-around porch. She shakes hands. Her next trip down winding Minnesota Street could lead in any number of directions.

No Willie Lomans

At first our way of teaching can be very difficult for some sales people to understand. It’s unique. We (at Healthcare Academy) have come from medicine and know the medical mind. It’s a mind educated using the scientific problem solving method. If you have a problem, you fix that problem using science. So we teach salespeople how to think like a scientist, like a physician. We help them come up with solutions using science. This sales strategy teaches them not to think about what they should be saying next, and be self-conscious, but to think about the patient’s problems and to enter a scientific conversation with the physician or nurse. —Judy Hoff, chief executive officer.

Whenever, However, Wherever

When an employee of a nursing home or hospital learns at their own home using one of our online systems, their on-line time and scores are documented. Online learning like ours keeps a night nurse from having to drive in for education during the day. She can learn at home whenever she wants.

I recently picked up a telephone call from a nurse at home doing one of our lessons. She had a question for me. In the background I could hear her kid playing the tuba, and she was cooking dinner on the side as she did her online learning. This is what we have always wanted in adult learning—to be able to learn when and where we want. This was much better than someone making her drive in and sit in a classroom. In the classroom situation, there is no controlling the speed of a lecture. At home, she can speed up or slow down to her pace. All that really matters is that the nurse learns the objectives and gets a good score. Plus, the kid with the tuba knows mom’s in the next room. —Judy Hoff

Doctor In The House?

I also have a Bachelors degree in nursing from Minnesota State in Mankato and a Masters in Human Health Service Administration from St. Mary’s. At one time I seriously thought about getting a Ph.D. In fact, I actually made an appointment at St. Thomas to begin one in adult learning, went there, and literally couldn’t get out of the car. I just couldn’t do it. I could not go on to do it. So I never pursued it. I didn’t need it. —Judy Hoff, founder of Healthcare Academy.

Old School Days

The Hoffs have been renovating the former Henderson High School building, which towers high over downtown Henderson, itself a model of renovation. Prices for the eight wood-floor and red-brick-interior condos at the project range from $175,000 to $250,000. Initially the project was Ron Hoff’s idea.

“The school left town in the ‘90s when it merged with Le Sueur,” says Judy Hoff of Healthcare Academy. “Some private companies then occupied the building until it closed two years ago.” As for their condos under renovation, “they’re huge, just huge,” says Hoff. “Some are three bedrooms, and they are all open and airy with large windows.”

Connect Fact:

Judy Hoff is past president of the 400-member National Association of Women Business Owners.

© 2005 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Daniel Vance

Daniel Vance

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *