How NWHSU Prepared Michael Mortenson to Lead Chiropractic Care in VA Hospitals

Michael Mortenson, D.C., started calling the staff recruiter at the Fargo, North Dakota VA hospital in 2004 as soon as President George W. Bush signed a law that made it possible for chiropractors to practice in VA hospitals.

“I told him that I wanted the opportunity to serve veterans and provide them treatment from someone who’d been there,” Mortenson recalls. “He said ‘We’re not ready yet,’ so I called back every six months. He kept saying it until 2018, which is when I started working here. Fourteen years later.”

As staff chiropractor at the Fargo VA, Mortenson has contributed not only to his hospital, but also to the entire VA system. He’s currently working on developing guidelines for chiropractors who will practice in the new wellness program “Whole Health,” an integrative care program that aims to improve the health of veterans by treating the whole person.

Serving as a Marine, then as a chiropractor

Mortenson says he learned his dedication to accomplishing a mission in the Marine Corps. He served as a non-commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps until 1993, and then enrolled in the Doctor of Chiropractic program at Northwestern Health Sciences University in 1996.

“Because I was a little older when I started chiropractic school, my level of maturity was different,” says Mortenson. “My time in the Marine Corps means everything to me. It taught me to be driven, disciplined and dedicated to something bigger than who I am.”

When Mortenson first earned his degree, he never imagined that he would have the opportunity to treat veterans in a VA hospital. At that time, chiropractors were alternative medicine practitioners who did not have hospital privileges.

“I always thought that I had to change a little to fit in the medical world, but truthfully what has happened is that medicine has changed to come in my direction,” Mortenson says. “I can be genuine open and honest in my medical practice, and other practitioners will embrace what I’m doing.”

Setting standards for integrative care practice

Mortenson is on the front lines of this sea change in medicine as a member of the VA hospital system. Since 2018, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s affairs has been rolling out Whole Health, which shifts its healthcare practitioners’ focus from treating what’s the matter with patients to uncovering what matters most to veterans and helping them achieve optimal health.

In his position at the Fargo VA, Mortenson is working to help create guidelines for the role, function, and procedures that will guide chiropractors who work as members of an integrative care team in the VA hospitals.

“I was the first chiropractor brought on in the Whole Health department, and I’ve helped shape and put together what it will look like to have a chiro on staff at hospital, everything from defining a patient visit and recommending tables, everything needed to function,” Mortenson says. “My guidelines will be used in hospitals around the country.”

This new standard for integrative care is changing the way that healthcare providers from all disciplines approach patient care, according to Mortenson.

“When I started talking about the Whole Health system with providers, they would say ‘isn’t this new stuff really cool, the acupuncture and chiropractic,’” Mortenson says. “I realized that this is what Northwestern Health Sciences University is all about, prevention, looking at the patient as the whole, and I was amazed that medicine didn’t already see that.”

Changing the healthcare system for the better

Even though the Whole Health system is only in its early stages, it’s benefiting patients, providing better outcomes for veterans at the Fargo VA.

“It’s having a huge impact, especially with opioids,” Mortenson says. “We’re doing everything that we can to transition our veterans from opioids to something more natural, specifically acupuncture and chiropractic, and we’ve seen a 75 percent decrease with opioid use with our veterans here in Fargo.

“It’s absolutely changing the way medicine looks at opioids and pain.”
Integrative care at the Fargo VA is influencing the way private hospitals approach their patients as well, according to Mortenson.

“What we are trying to do at the VA is looking at the whole person, not just the disease,” Mortenson says. “We’re hoping that other hospitals will start to pick this up and mimic what we are doing, hire chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, health coaches. The Fargo hospital is creating an integrated health department now, following our lead.”

An education that supports integrative practice

Mortenson values everything he learned at NWHSU, and he’s pleased that the VA hospitals and the greater healthcare system are beginning to see the value in his education as well.

“NWHSU should be very proud of themselves for putting out students who have the guts to be natural health care providers,” Mortenson says. “It’s hard to fix someone with just your hands. Medicine has always had pills, but we’ve stuck to our guns and stuck to a model that works, and it’s a great moment when the doctors come up and say, ‘hey, I need your help with pain.’”