It looks like the battle of the hospitals is on.
Penrose-St. Francis Health Services announced plans Friday to seek Level 1 trauma certification for its emergency department – less than a month after competitor Memorial Hospital made the same pledge.
Penrose’s main hospital on North Nevada Avenue would receive the designation, and is just a few miles from Memorial Central, where officials are also moving toward the highest trauma certification, announced in August.
Penrose-St. Francis Board of Trustees supports the plan, according to a press release announcing the decision. Penrose is currently a Level II center, and St. Francis Medical Center, at Powers Boulevard and Woodmen Road, is a Level IV trauma center.
“If a Level 1 trauma center is needed in Southern Colorado, it absolutely should be at Penrose Hospital,” said Margaret Sabin, president and CEO of Penrose-St. Francis. “We have a 126-year legacy of providing world-class health care to our community, and are perfectly positioned to achieve Level 1 status as we’ve had a long-standing commitment to trauma as a Level II trauma center.”
Penrose-St. Francis is part of Centura Health, the first integrated health care network in the country to establish a comprehensive, fully-integrated trauma system in 2009 when it launched the Centura Health Trauma System. It’s comprised of 14 designated trauma centers, Flight for Life Colorado and the state’s largest EMS support center.
“We’ve been building toward this, quietly, for the past five years,” Sabin said. “We’ve been raising our platform and our portion of trauma cases has grown — that’s all available in the public data. People are choosing Penrose when they’re able to choose, and that’s a vote of confidence that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Sabin oversees the integrated trauma system that reaches throughout the state. And she says the partnership with hospitals in Southern Colorado means they rely on Penrose to handle the most complicated cases.
“We think the time is right to do this, particularly as the number of hospitals we support grows,” she said.
Sabin added that trauma market share has grown for Penrose-St. Francis during the past few years while other hospitals in the region have seen their market shares decline. Additionally, Penrose-St. Francis has been named among Healthgrades America’s 50 Best Hospitals for the past six consecutive years, the only hospital in Colorado with such a streak, placing it among the top 1 percent of hospitals in the country.
“Our affiliates in Southern Colorado depend upon our System of Care, and we have an obligation and responsibility to provide them the highest level of care available,” Sabin said.
The competition between the two hospitals has always been friendly, with Penrose accepting Memorial’s trauma patients during a period after a group of neurosurgeons in Colorado Springs ended their contract with Memorial, leaving the hospital without 24-hour trauma surgeons needed to maintain its Level 2 status.
But Gary Campbell, CEO of Centura, warned the Memorial task force in 2011 that putting the hospital in the hands of an outside agency, like University of Colorado Health, could lead to a “medical arms race” and rising prices. The hospital promised it would compete with the billions expected to be put into Memorial’s capital.
The competition has always been mixed with good cooperation before, but Penrose has been able to chip away at Memorial’s market share during uncertainty about the future. The hospital has built on its relationship with Centura to create a network of care and partnerships with hospitals on the Western Slope, Eastern Plains and into Kansas.
Level 1 trauma certification is the highest level offered by the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. Only four hospitals in the state currently have the certification, and all of them are in Denver. It’s both time-consuming and costly to pursue the certification, as it requires around-the-clock specialty care and high-tech equipment.
Sabin said it isn’t likely the state would approve two Level 1 hospitals in a city the size of Colorado Springs.
“They’ll make that decision,” she said. “I think they’ll make it based on the numbers. I would guess that they would not approve two.”
There isn’t much difference between Level 1 and Level 2 certification, experts say, but the differences are what make the change expensive. Both require around-the-clock access to specialty surgeons — neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, cardiothoracic surgeons. The higher certification requires high-tech monitoring and surgical equipment, the ability to perform minimally invasive surgery and to treat the very worst trauma cases at any time, day or night.
There also must be enough patients being flown from the region to Denver to make it necessary to obtain the higher certification. And there must be a dedicated operating room at a hospital for trauma cases to achieve Level 1.
While Memorial says it could take about 18 months to reach the certification, Sabin said Penrose is closer to approval.
“We’re waiting on a response to our letter of intent from the state,” she said. “We expect that today. Then we’ll have our application to them in less than a year. We have the only integrated clinical trauma system in the state, we already have a Level 1 system within Centura and we’ve built a peer-reviewed platform of care. Absolutely, we’re further along.”