Erling steers Penrose-St. Francis through change

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Penrose-St. Francis Health Services is kicking off a new strategic plan for Colorado Springs, reassessing whether it needs to build the new hospital planned for its Fillmore Street site, completing a $102 million expansion at St. Francis Medical Center, and seeking a new CEO.

It’s a big year.

Interim CEO Brian Erling, appointed after longtime CEO Margaret Sabin stepped down March 16, is at the helm through all the changes. He’s focused on navigating a rapidly evolving health care landscape and working out what Colorado Springs really needs.

That includes taking a hard look at plans for a $550 million medical campus — which would be Penrose-St. Francis’ third hospital in the Springs — and deciding whether to go ahead.

“What we are doing is going back and saying, ‘Well, the information that we built our strategic plan on — that said we need to build a brand-new hospital right there — most of those projections we had already hit within three years,’” Erling said. “The market’s changed and where all the growth is happening has changed, so what we’re doing is kicking off a new strategic plan specifically for this market, to [define] what should we be doing and where. … Do you just build a brand new hospital that does everything that Penrose does — which was the original plan — or do we focus certain specialties over there?

“We’re really trying to ask what makes the most sense for the community and where the growth is. We’re still committed — that strategic plan and that rework of our master facility plan will be done this summer, and we’ll be able to say: ‘This is what we’re doing, and this is where we’re doing it.’ And then we’ll be able to move forward quickly.”

Penrose-St. Francis is still “very interested” in using the 80-acre site at the corner of Fillmore Street and Centennial Boulevard, Erling said, but new plans will unfold based on new information.

“You do have to take a step back and say, ‘Gosh, are you going to spend half a billion dollars and end up with only a handful more beds and a handful more [operating rooms] to meet the community need? Was that really the best use of that much money?’” he said. “So we’re asking those questions — and the answer might be yes, that is a good use of the money, let’s build the hospital over there; it just needs to be a bit bigger.”

Penrose-St. Francis is vetting consulting groups to build the projections that the new market strategy and market facility plan will be based on. Regardless, the intention is to disrupt the status quo.

“Whatever we build, we want it to be a hospital of the future. It can’t be the same way that we’re providing health care, that we’ve always provided health care,” Erling said. “The idea is that we really can be consumer-facing and have that level of convenience and service that people expect but no one can find in health care. … It just doesn’t exist. Most of us hate doing anything in the health care system, myself included. It’s not fun. So that’s what’s making us really excited: If we’re going to [build] something over there, can we be transformational?”

Erling, an emergency medicine specialist who took his first job in health care at 16, talked with the Business Journal about growth, creating stability, and his path to Colorado Springs.

As interim CEO, what are your priorities?

My main priority is to set the place up for success for the next CEO. We know this market is very attractive to people — everything about Colorado Springs, but also this hospital, its traditions and this outstanding medical staff. This job will attract superstars. … It’s really hard because Margaret Sabin was a wonderful leader and was here for a long time. She did great work and that transition’s hard. Going around talking to staff, it’s almost like some are in mourning — when a loved leader moves on, it’s hard. To be able to fill in that transition and create some stability during a time when there isn’t any — because health care’s changing and there’s lots of transition — that’s my goal.

Is Penrose-St. Francis on track financially, with so much expansion underway?

Yes. We’re close to budget this year — we have a little bit of work to do. We are, like every organization, always looking at ways that we can make sure that we’re continuously improving. In order to get the amount of capital that we need for this market, we need to perform probably a little better than we are, and we’re looking at making improvements to do that. But Penrose-St. Francis is solid. This is not going to be like what we saw at St. Mary-Corwin [Hospital, in Pueblo, which recently announced more than 300 layoffs and a two-thirds reduction in bed space] with any kind of repositioning or anything like that.

Is St. Mary-Corwin outside of your scope?

It is. It’s all in one group, but it is different. Obviously we still partner and collaborate very well; we have very solid referral lines between the two markets.

Will the new CEO be covering the same area as Margaret Sabin —
focused on the Springs?

Yes. You know her original position was bigger … This person’s going to be flying a little lower, with the key focus being Colorado Springs. So if there is another facility up here and this one stays open — or a fourth facility — that’ll all be under this market’s CEO.

Talk about your path to this role and to Colorado Springs.

I went to medical school at Johns Hopkins, did my residency at [University of Virginia], took my first job out of residency practicing [in Denver] at St. Anthony Hospital in the ER. I wanted to be in a Level I Trauma Center and that’s why I took that job. … I got my MBA at the University of Colorado in Denver and then worked for Envision Healthcare, leading their joint venture with [Hospital Corp. of America], so I did that for three years. That was a lot of travel all over the country, too much time away from the family, and I frankly missed that connection to the community. When you’re helping manage practices in communities that are a plane ride away from the community that you live in, it’s very different than working in your own community where your family, your friends and your neighbors are going to use your health facilities. I missed that connection and I missed the connection to our mission here. So when an opportunity opened up back at Centura, I jumped at it. I came back in March of 2016 as a chief medical officer for our north Denver hospitals, and then [CEO] Peter Banko asked me to join his team as chief clinical officer in December 2016, same year. And when Peter and [Centura Health Group President] Tom Gessel asked me if I would do this, I was happy to do it.

How does your background in emergency medicine and quality improvement affect the way you approach this leadership position?

Patients first. That’s the easy one. It’s easy to get distracted by a lot of things when you’re in health care. Outcomes, quality and safety are No. 1 — they always have to be No. 1. And frankly, if you keep them No. 1, you’ll always do great. That’s where the rubber meets the road. From my standpoint, because I have a system role as the chief clinical officer, one of the perks is I’ve been able to get to know a whole different market. I grew up practicing clinically in Denver so I know those hospitals and those physicians pretty well. If you want to make continuous improvements in health care, you have to partner with physicians 100 percent … so for me this has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know this medical staff and the physicians in this community better.

Can you pinpoint the time when you set your sights on medicine?

I was in seventh grade. I don’t know what called me to it but I was called to it and I was one of those guys who did a lot of stuff to make sure it was right. So my first job, I was 16 and I worked as a nursing assistant in the operating room, cleaning OR rooms and moving patients around. And then I did the same thing in the ER, and then I went off to college and came back and I did the same thing on a hospice floor, and then I was at college watching monitors on a telemetry floor. So I worked a bunch of different jobs in the hospital, just always knowing that I wanted to do it.

Tell us a bit about your life outside the hospital.

I’m married, I have three kids. My oldest daughter’s 17 and just went to the senior prom this week. My second child, my daughter, is a freshman at Mullen [High School], and my son Wesley is a 7th grader at All Souls. My hobby is probably golf but my son is a competitive junior golfer, so I spend more time watching or caddying for him than I do actually playing…

Do you still get to work on the clinical side?

I don’t. I loved practicing emergency medicine — you really can make a huge difference in people’s lives, without a doubt. But I knew pretty early on in my career that I thought I could make an impact in more lives, whether it was through working on safety initiatives, or quality, or working with the docs to improve our outcomes. So when I made the decision to go into that side of medicine in 2013, I just made the decision to jump with both feet.

There have been huge changes in medicine over the past couple of decades. Do you have advice for people going into it?

There’s no better calling. If you’re interested in it, you absolutely should pursue it. I think there was a time when some people went into medicine for the wrong reasons. If you’re interested in being part of the solution and truly interested in helping people, you will not find anything more rewarding, without a doubt.