Michael Bernhagen

Michael Bernhagen is the Director of Community Engagement and Care Partner Relations at Rainbow Hospice Care in Jefferson, Wisconsin. From 1994 to 2003, he worked in curative business development for Aurora Health Care (Wisconsin's largest integrated healthcare delivery system) and the Medical College of Wisconsin (a multi-specialty, academic group practice). During this decade, his time and energy were spent focusing on things like "physician incentive compensation plans", “revenue growth”, “patient acquisition”, and “referral relationship development”. Those priorities changed in late 2003, however, when his mother, Rita, passed away from congestive heart failure and vascular dementia. Watching her slow decline as well the struggle of his family and her healthcare providers to deal with the process inspired him to join the hospice movement in 2004. 

Since then, Michael has been on the road working as a hospice advocate. In his present role, he visits with physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses, social workers and administrators in the clinic, hospital, skilled nursing, and assisted living settings to build the depth and breadth of their hospice knowledge. In addition, Mike frequently speaks about end-of-life issues at educational conferences (left) and in health care facilities and faith communities. Since joining Rainbow in 2007, Bernhagen's work has helped transform Wisconsin's Jefferson County into an "island of excellence" for end-of-life care. That is, referrals, admissions, median length of stay, total patient days, and average daily census have all increased significantly, ultimately producing the second highest Medicare hospice utilization rate (62.9%) by county in the Badger State, and allowing for construction of a state of the art inpatient hospice facility and launch of a community-based palliative care program.

In his spare time, Mike collaborates with Terry Kaldhusdal to produce documentary films on the American struggle with communication and preparation for end-of-life. Their first project, Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject, aired 611 times on 176 PBS stations in 33 states (reaching 50.84% of the nation) and was shared with thousands of Americans during hundreds of free community screenings around the country. It also won 11 awards and helped inspire Honoring Choices Wisconsin, an initiative of the Wisconsin Medical Society seeking to make facilitated advance care planning discussions a standard part of patient care in the Badger State.

Their second piece of work, Consider the Conversation 2: Stories About Cure, Relief, and Comfort, premiered on Wisconsin Public Television on 5/27/14, was nominated for a Regional Emmy on 9/23/14, and released to PBS stations nationwide on 9/26/14. During its two year PBS run, the film aired 1,588 times on 268 public television stations in 41 states (reaching 80.1% of the nation) and won eleven awards including two Bronze Tellys and the 2014 Global Film Awards Humanitarian Award.

In these documentary films, Mike sees the potential they have to make a difference - both in terms of removing fear and inspiring people to begin the conversation about their end-of-life wishes well before the finish line is in sight.  

Mike and his wife, Denise, reside in Waukesha, Wisconsin along with their two children, ages 19 and 15.

Michael Bernhagen and his wife, Denise, at the Milwaukee Press Club's 85th annual MPC Awards for Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism dinner where Consider the Conversation 2: Stories about Cure, Relief, and Comfort won Silver in the category of "Best Public Affairs Program, Documentary or News Special".