Nearly a year ago, voters in Colorado Springs allowed University of Colorado Health to lease Memorial Hospital, bringing a powerhouse nonprofit from Denver to work its magic on the struggling municipal system.
UCH has worked hard, publicly and behind the scenes, to turn around Memorial’s patient volume, installing a multi-million-dollar electronic health records system and hiring high-level specialty surgeons. But the most recent changes are geared toward employees, giving them a mission, direction and an updated sense of purpose.
“This really wasn’t a merger,” said Memorial spokesman Brian Newsome. “It was the creation of an entirely new system from scratch. Much of the last year has been figuring out who will do what, what processes can be centralized and what cannot. How do we define our culture?”
Much of that work has gone unnoticed — defining UCH to its employees, its patients and the public at large. New mission and vision statements are among the most important steps toward integrating four independent hospital systems into a single organization, officials say.
Memorial’s need for direction was acute. After years of uncertainty, negative publicity and decreasing patient volumes, employee morale was suffering. Doctors were leaving the system; others refused to send patients there. Its reputation suffered as leadership focused on the joint issues of ownership and governance — dealing with a changing cast of politicians trying to shape the hospital’s destiny in different ways.
Today, Memorial officials say there’s still a long way to go. Patient volumes are up in a few areas, like cardiology, where new cardiothoracic surgeons have been hired. In other areas, volumes remain lower than normal.
“It’s not been a year yet,” Newsome said. “We’re making changes, but you can’t turn a ship around overnight.”
The system as a whole — including Memorial, University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Poudre Valley Health System in Fort Collins and the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland — needed to give employees overall direction.
Starting last November, a group of high-level CEOs including Pete Coors helped the system develop ground rules.
After weeks of meetings and hours of conversations, UCH produced its new mission, values and goals. For Memorial, they’re more than just words.
“This is what we want to be focused on every day we come to work,” said Newsome. “It’s who we are; it’s what we’re about. It’s incredibly beneficial to have this in writing.”
The mission: “We improve lives. In big ways through learning, healing and discovery. In small, personal ways through human connection. But in all ways, we improve lives.”
“That can mean something huge, like saving someone’s life,” Newsome said. “Or it can be something small, like bringing a patient ice chips after surgery. It’s about making lives better, in all ways.”
The system-wide vision: “From health care to health,” and its new value statement: “Patients first, integrity and excellence.”
“This might not seem like a big deal,” Newsome said. “Everyone has a mission statement, right? But putting it in words, where we can see it every day, that’s important to us. And it’s important that we’re moving from fixing what’s wrong to preventing illness in the first place.”
It could be important for the system’s success, said Dr. Steven Berkshire, director of the doctoral health administration program at Central Illinois University. He says Memorial soon should start seeing positive results as UCH upgrades systems and hires doctors.
“It depends on where they put their money,” he said. “And it looks like they focused on areas that are money-makers first — things like orthopedics and cardiology. But now they have to focus on the other areas that are important, but typically don’t make a lot of money — the day-to-day things, like obstetrics or pediatrics.”
So far, Berkshire said, UCH has taken steps that make sense.
“Memorial’s reputation suffered during the years of talking about the hospital’s future,” he said. “Its financial footing was damaged. So, it’s going to take time to rebuild that, and focusing on capital improvements — the EPIC health records are very expensive — will give them the chance to turn things around.”
It helps that UCH has deep pockets, said Berkshire, who as a former professor at Denver’s Regis University is intimately familiar with the system.
“They have the right financing in place to spend the money,” he said. “Their credit rating is great, and they knew they were going to have to spend the money to turn around the system when it started. But things should start improving quickly from here on out. If they don’t, then there could be issues within the system itself.”
From the workers’ perspective, changes go beyond cosmetic. Coming to work is better now, said Kim Cooper, Memorial’s clinical development educator.
“The energy has changed,” she said. “We’ve always done the best we can, but the conversations were distracting. We didn’t know what was going to happen. There was so much relief after voters approved the lease — we knew things would be better.”
The mission statement is just part of that.
“It’s good to know, every day, why we’re here,” she said. “I think it makes a huge difference. Now we can raise the bar even further. We have this saying among staff, ‘Now is our time.’ We’re stepping up and becoming a great place for people to come heal.”