UCH brings run of recent successes into MHS lease

After a $400 million addition is completed, the main University of Colorado Hospital will have 140 more patient beds as well as a state-of-the-art new emergency department.

The University of Colorado Hospital is a success story — and Colorado Springs is hoping a lease agreement and partnership with UCH will make Memorial Health System into one, too.

UCH’s list of successes is long.

It’s a $900 million-a-year enterprise, employing 4,100 people, ranked among the top 5 percent of the nation’s hospitals for financial health, with profit margins that hover around 20 percent.

An ongoing $400 million construction project will add hundreds of inpatient beds, and UCH recently completed a $40 million cancer center expansion.

But it wasn’t always that way.

When CEO Bruce Schroffel took the reins more than six years ago, the hospital was struggling. He said the state of the hospital was similar to Memorial’s now — barely turning a profit, rapidly losing patient volume, with suffering staff morale.

Memorial’s 40-year lease to UCH, barring delays, could be reality by Oct. 1. Schroffel plans to use the same success formula he relied on to turn around UCH, a formula that doesn’t focus on the bottom line as much as it does on relationships.

“There’s nothing that compares to UCH in the United States,” he said. “And we got here by changing the culture, adding trust and integrity.”

Success strategy

UCH’s transition didn’t happen overnight, Schroffel said, but when hospital culture begins to change, quality improves and more people use the hospital — the money will follow.

UCH’s patient numbers back his stance. The hospital routinely operates at 100 percent capacity and relies on agreements with other hospitals to handle overflow.

“Generally, you want to be at about 80 percent capacity. Then you can move patients where they need to be for testing or for other things,” he said, adding that “100 percent makes it difficult for the staff and for the patients.”

Schroffel says he believes financial profit stems from a culture that values doctors’ opinions and fosters honest communication between staff and management.

Those are things many doctors say have been missing from Memorial.

“There’s a real lack of trust,” he said. “And there’s a lot of angst. What they’ve been through for the past two, three years — it’s been a long, long haul for them. And dealing with that is going to take some time.”

UCH’s growing reputation has been coupled with the growth of the mammoth 3.5 million-square-foot medical campus on which it is located.

The Anschutz Medical Campus, home to UCH and several other institutions — operates in many ways like an independent city.

It’s inhabited by 8,000 workers and hundreds of medical, dental and pharmaceutical students, not counting 17,000 other indirect jobs in Aurora. Its economic impact is set at more than $2 billion annually.

Several research buildings receive more than $400 million in grants a year. The University of Colorado Hospital, however, dominates the campus with its 12-story inpatient tower. Children’s Hospital Colorado is nearby, as is the UCH-run Rocky Mountain Eye Center and Cedars rehabilitation center.

Restaurants, a fitness center and assisted living facilities for military veterans are all on the grounds. Nearby apartment complexes are occupied by doctors and med students. Adjacent to the medical campus itself is the Fitzsimons Life Sciences District, home to a series of bioscience startups and companies.

It’s so large that courtesy drivers in golf carts ferry visitors around the campus, which has grown faster than expected.

“Construction is ahead of where we thought it would be at this point,” Schroffel said. “We just never dreamed it would become this large, this quickly.”

He said when he started the job he noted that the ample space would prevent parking headaches that are common among hospitals.

“I was wrong, he said. “Parking started to be a problem very soon.”

An additional parking garage, now under construction, is expected to ease congestion.

But it’s the 12-story addition to UCH’s main hospital, also under construction, that will give patients more breathing room. It will add about 140 inpatient beds to the existing 437 and will house a state-of-the-art emergency department twice the size of the current one, which operates beyond capacity nearly every day.

“We have beds in the hallways that are there pretty-much permanently,” said construction project manager Catherine Reeves. “It’s just hard to move people around because it’s always full.”

Wealth and health

It might be hard to argue the fact that integrity and a strong communication ethic have contributed to UCH’s success, but it has an advantage other hospitals don’t: the financial backing of oil-and-gas billionaire Phil Anschutz, who shelled out $91 million to fund the creation of the campus and has paid for several of its initiatives.

Anschutz took a step into the Colorado Springs market last September when he became the owner of The Broadmoor, which he acquired when he bought the Oklahoma Publishing Company.

“Certainly, the donations and support of Philip Anschutz and Pete Coors make it possible for us to do more,” said Dan Weaver, hospital spokesman. “It’s one of the things that sets us apart.”

The success of UCH’s programs is another factor. It’s the top academic hospital in the nation, according to the University HealthSystem Consortium, a 114-member alliance of university academic hospitals. It’s also been named the best for many of its specialty programs by U.S. News and World Report.

Its cancer center is one of 40 centers nationwide certified by the National Cancer Institute, and its burn center is the only one in Colorado certified by the American Burn Association and the American College of Surgeons. Those factors mean that patients come not only from Denver and the Front Range, but from Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, Kansas, Utah and Nebraska.

“We really are a regional hospital,” Weaver said. “And we have a regional focus.”

Stance on separation

UCH operates in a number of unique ways.

Every doctor teaches at the University of Colorado Medical School, which allows doctors not only to practice medicine, but to conduct research in their specific fields.

Also, instead of having one Intensive Care Unit for all patients, UCH separates ICUs according to medical specialty: one for surgery, one for burns, one for cardiology.

The cancer center operates the same way, divided according to type of cancer.

“We tend to focus on specific groups of cancer, as opposed to general medical oncology,” said Strode Weaver, executive director of oncology services. “It keeps staff current with research, with procedures. And it leads to better outcomes.”

That research is already benefiting Colorado Springs, though a lease is still pending.

Dr. Gordon Lundberg, chief of UCH’s burn center, started working with Memorial years ago, as part of a statewide outreach education program that he started to train emergency department doctors to deal with burns.

Lundberg pioneered research into the creation and use of synthetic skin, which offers faster healing than standard skin grafts.

The burn center operates differently, too, because it teams with neurosurgeons, psychologists and occupational therapists to help patients recover.

Caution over comparison

Schroffel said that under the lease partnership, Memorial no doubt would benefit from the ability to share in UCH’s vast research, but he cautioned against further parallels and comparisons.

He said the job of building a relationship based on trust is the first task — and a potentially challenging one.

“It’s going to be a long, long haul from here,” Schroffel said. The No. 1 thing to do is to build trust, and have proof of success first. We have to change the culture of operations and finances, and its quality.”

At the end of the day, Memorial also is a different type of hospital from UCH, he said.

“The missions are different. We aren’t going to bring down all the research and all the faculty — but we are going to build on what’s there — and build on the mission of patient care.”