Joel Johnson, Park River doctor, receives two rural health care awards

“I’m happy for the whole facility and recognize this is all because of the nurses that work so hard with me,” said Johnson.

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Dr. Joel Johnson of First Care Health in Park River is the 2023 winner of the Rural Health Practioner of the Year award. From left, Jenn Jorgensen, Amy Burianek, Leah Staven, Marlys Kjelland and Jessica Zola are photographed with Dr. Johnson on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

PARK RIVER, N.D. – To Dr. Joel Johnson, two awards recently bestowed to him for his work in rural health care are less about his individual accomplishments and more a reflection of the work he and his team provide.

In March, the Park River doctor was announced as the winner of the North Dakota Outstanding Rural Health Provider award from the Center for Rural Health and the Rural Practitioner of the Year award from the National Rural Health Association.

“I’m happy for the whole facility and recognize this is all because of the nurses that work so hard with me,” said Johnson.

But ask people Johnson works with at Park River's First Care Health Center, and they say he deserves all the credit.

“He’s very humble – he doesn’t like to take credit for anything,” said Tammy Clemetson, the physician's assistant at First Care Health Center. “If he can do something for someone and they don’t know that it was him that did it, he’s happier that way.”


Marcus Lewis, CEO of First Care Health Center, says he chose to nominate Johnson for the awards because of how he delivers care to patients.

“His practice and the way he has developed that practice over two decades really set the tone not just for the clinic, not just for the organization, but for the community,” said Lewis. “It’s that high standard of excellence and that commitment to the patient that keeps patients loyal.”

According to data from the 2020 census, North Dakota had 271 centenarians, a 23% increase from 2010. Minnesota had 1,543 centenarians, a more than 27% increase from 2010.

The Center for Rural Health’s award is presented to a health care provider in North Dakota who is committed to improving the health of their community and service area. The National Rural Health Association award recognizes a provider for leadership in bringing health services to rural populations.

Johnson, who started his career at First Care Health Center in 1996, says good service for patients starts with being available to them.

“I’m pretty much always available, so I think that’s helped build confidence with the patients, so they feel comfortable that when they need me, I’m here,” said Johnson. “I think that’s the biggest thing – they know I’m around.”

Clemetson first met Johnson when he was a resident at UND.

“He was so excited as a resident – he couldn’t wait to come if they called, and he keeps on doing that,” she said. “He doesn’t stop. The patient always comes first, always – it doesn’t matter who it is, what it is or what time of day it is. Patients always come first.”

While he strives to always be available to patients, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic brought especially long hours for Johnson and his team, especially as hospital beds in larger hospitals filled up.


“It really pushed the rural hospitals to perform at their best because we had to and were expected to be able to take care of sicker patients that we usually wouldn’t take care of, but there wasn’t access to tertiary care,” said Johnson.

As the pandemic continues, COVID-19 mutations have made the disease less lethal, said Johnson, but other challenges — like nurse shortages — continue.

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Dr. Joel Johnson practices medicine in First Care Health Center in Park River, the hospital he was born in. A portrait of Dr. Frank Weed , a founder of the hospital (then known as St. Ansgar's Hospital) hangs on the wall.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

When he is not working directly with patients, Johnson works to improve patients' experience at First Care Health Center. Recently, Johnson and one of the clinic nurses have slowly worked to transform the clinic, repainting walls and putting up artwork that represents the communities served by First Care.

“We want this opulent appearance so patients are comfortable and relaxed. I want it to be soothing, warm and welcoming,” he said. “I don’t want something dreary, ugly, dirty and out of date.”

Patients notice the dedication Johnson has to the community and his patients, said Lewis.

“It is unparalleled in primary care for a provider to be that effective in his role, but not have the patient ever feel rushed,” said Lewis.

And in return, Johnson says he sees the support of the community.

“The patients are very appreciative. They trust us with their care and they are always supporting the hospital,” said Johnson. “It’s just nice to be appreciated.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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