Letter from the Publisher: Clearing the air, for credibility’s sake


Last week, the Colorado Springs Business Journal ran one of our routine features — a One-on-One profile with the interim CEO of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, Dr. Brian Erling.

The response from the health system was anything but routine, so we feel the need to set the record straight.

The CSBJ prides itself on accurate, balanced journalism. Reporters work hard to take notes and record interviews to make sure the quotes are exactly what the source said, and we double-check those stories through our editorial process, which includes three editors reading, proofreading and fact-checking.

That’s why we were surprised to get a phone call from Penrose on Friday, and even more surprised when they claimed the story was inaccurate. Reporter Helen Robinson checked her notes and listened again to the recorded interview. And Erling said (and, based on his quotes, believed) all the things we reported.

Erling told the CSBJ that the system wasn’t necessarily going to put a full-service hospital on the Fillmore Street site. In one exchange that wasn’t part of the published story, the reporter asked Erling for clarification on that statement — that the system was examining various options for the site — and Erling confirmed that it was. But that’s not the story the hospital gave The Gazette when they called to follow up on the CSBJ’s reporting the next day. Instead, they said there would, without question, still be a hospital on the site. So the Business Journal has published the entire transcript (excluding two brief, off-the-record exchanges — at Erling’s request — during the interview) below.

Despite the altered narrative from Penrose, the CSBJ stands by its interview and its reporting. A thorough look at the transcript shows that Erling confirmed what the health system later disputed. To be clear, the Business Journal isn’t responsible for Penrose’s public relations snafus. We have a responsibility to our readers to report the news, accurately and fairly, without bias. That’s exactly what we did.

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Sometimes the news, as it’s reported, isn’t exactly what a hospital CEO wants it to be, and sometimes it’s not what his bosses want it to be. And that’s just the nature of the job.

There’s a famous quote of disputable origins that says, “Journalism is printing what someone doesn’t want to be printed: Everything else is public relations.” The Business Journal is not a PR firm — we’re a newspaper. Readers and sources shouldn’t confuse our niche as a business-to-business newspaper with being either pro-business or anti-business. We report business news for business leaders. We do so with ethics and integrity, adhering to the highest standards.

We’ll make sure we’re up front about any conflicts of interest, both real and perceived. If we write about those who provide services to our publication or our sister publications, you’ll know. If we cover agencies our spouses work for, you’ll know. If we write about a nonprofit with ties to a CSBJ employee, you’ll know. And when a hospital executive says plans are changing for a long-awaited, controversial hospital, we’ll tell you that too.

Credibility is the sole currency of the media. And with almost daily attacks on the news media from the highest level of government, that credibility — and the press freedom that underlies it — is more important than ever.

— Amy Gillentine Sweet, publisher and executive editor



Due to disputes regarding the accuracy of the Colorado Springs Business Journal’s One-on-One article with Penrose-St. Francis Health Services interim CEO Brian Erling (May 4, 2018 edition), the CSBJ is publishing the transcript of the interview in its entirety. Some quotes are italicized for emphasis. Those speaking are Penrose-St. Francis public information officer Andrea Sinclair; Business Journal reporter and Digital Editor Helen Robinson; and Dr. Erling.

Robinson: It’s working. I’ll glance at it from time to time to make sure it’s working because my big fear is it stops in the middle.

Sinclair: It’s happened to all of us.

Robinson: So. I’ll go through quickly because I know you have places to go. As interim CEO what are your priorities?

Erling: My main priority is to set the place up for success for the next CEO. We know this market is actually very attractive to people, both Colorado Springs and everything about Colorado Springs, but also this hospital, the traditions of this hospital, this medical staff is an outstanding medical staff, and this job will attract superstars. We’re going to get really good people coming here. And so I want to be able to set them — It’s really hard because Margaret Sabin was a wonderful leader here 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 — a loved leader, when they move on, it’s hard. To be able to fill in that transition and just 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.

Robinson: There’s a lot going on for Penrose St. Francis — is there a timeline for the new medical campus?

Erling: Centura and Catholic Health Initiatives, which is our parent sponsor for this market, is highly committed to investing in this market. So I’m dancing around the question a little bit, because 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 those within three years.” So the market’s changed, where all the growth is happening, so what we’re doing is kicking off a new strategic plan specifically for this market, to say what should we be doing and where, there’s tons of growth up north as well. Do you just build a brand new hospital that does everything that Penrose does over there — which was the original plan — or do we focus certain specialties over there? So we’re really trying to ask the question of 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.

Robinson: That spot is still a place that you’re —

Erling: Very interested. Absolutely.

Robinson: — keeping something?

Erling: Absolutely.

Robinson: Is this a situation where the growth has overtaken where you thought you’d be?

Erling: The growth has overtaken, and it isn’t necessarily where it was projected when they did the original projections [like, I think it was 10 years ago, don’t quote me on that] years ago, it was in the past. Now they’re saying “Wow, all the growth is over here.” And 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 ORs to meet the community need — was that really the best use of that much money?” 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 little bit bigger. The thing that we’re really excited about is — 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. And so the idea 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. Think airlines, think Uber, think nice hotels. It just doesn’t exist. Right? Most of us hate doing anything in the health care system, myself included. It’s not fun. And so that’s what’s making some of us really excited: If we’re going to do something over there, can we be transformational?

Robinson: So we may not see an actual whole new hospital but it will be something that meets a set of needs that you’re identifying now?

Erling: Yes.

Just speaking off the record, [off-record segment follows]

Robinson: And then, back on the record, what’s the process you’re going through at the moment, who’s being consulted?

Erling: We’re still vetting our choices on the consulting group but we’re narrowing that choice, so we will be using external help to make sure that we have the right projections in place to help with our market strategy that’ll feed the market facility plan.

Robinson: The new CEO is going to come into a lot of growth and a lot of changes. Are they going to they be covering the same geographic area as Margaret was? I know she was focused on Colorado Springs — is that going to be the same?

Erling: Yes. You know her original position was bigger, and so she had to fly up here. 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.

Robinson: How do you see the health care landscape changing in Colorado Springs at the moment?

Erling: How do I see the health care landscape changing?

Sinclair: What a loaded question.

Erling: Yeah. Boy, I have to think about the answer to that. I mean the health care landscape’s changing everywhere. We have not seen the push to value, fee for value, that was projected you know, five, six years ago, so as a health system we’ve built up a lot of capabilities to deal with population health and to deal with managing the total cost of care, that have not been — that payers have not come to us and asked to use. So it’s like we’ve built up all these capabilities ready for that next generation of how we deliver care, and we still have those, but they’re not — nobody’s taking advantage of them.

Robinson: Why is that?

Erling: Again, I’d have to go off the record to answer that.

Robinson: OK. Give me a little bit off the record.

Sinclair: A little bit.

Robinson: And tell me when we’re back on. I always specify the beginning and end.

Erling: The little bit off the record is [off-record segment follows]

Erling:  — so we can go back on the record. But I can’t remember where we were, so you’ll have to ask a new question.

Robinson: Let’s go. OK. So the St. Francis medical expansion, is that still on track for 2019?

Erling: Yeah. Definitely — on schedule. We’re very excited about it.

Sinclair: I actually think we’re even a little bit ahead of schedule, I think we’re a little bit—

Erling: We’ll stick with “on schedule.”

Sinclair: Yes you’re right. Let’s definitely just stick to that. But we’ve definitely made awesome progress on that.

Robinson: That’s great. So is Penrose St. Francis on track financially with all these expansions going on? It’s a lot happening.

Erling: Yeah. We are, um, yeah. We’re close to budget this year. We have a little bit of work to do. We are always, 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 got 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. There is nothing — you know. This is not going to be like what we saw at St. Mary Corwin with any kind of repositioning or anything like that.

Robinson: Is that, St. Mary Corwin, is that outside of your scope?

Erling: It is.

Robinson: I thought so, but I wasn’t sure where the edges went.

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

Robinson: So how does your background in emergency medicine and quality improvement contribute to the way you approach this position, and to the way you lead?

Erling: Yeah. Well. 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, you keep them No. 1 you’ll always do great. And that’s — so. 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 little perks for me 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 pretty well, I know those physicians pretty well. If you want to make continuous improvements in health care, you have to partner with physicians 100 percent, and frankly nursing and all clinicians. But really you’ve got to partner with the physicians, so for me it’s been a wonderful opportunity to get to know this medical staff and the physicians in this community better. And frankly this is a wonderful medical staff that we have here — really, really high-functioning physicians, so it’s been a pleasure.

Robinson: Can you pinpoint the time when you set your sights on a career in medicine?

Erling: 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 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. And then, yeah. I was on the path.

Robinson: That’s been a long road.

Erling: I was the first physician in my family, which, I have 40-something cousins, don’t quote me on that, but a lot, I have a big family.

Robinson: That’s kind of unusual, especially to be the very first one.

Erling: Yeah.

Robinson: So how — I’m sorry. Tell me a bit about your life outside the hospital — is there one?

Erling: There is definitely one. I’m married, I have three kids. My oldest daughter’s 17, just went to the senior prom this week. But I live in Castle Pines. My second child, my daughter’s a freshman at Mullen, and my 7th grader boy Wesley, is a 7th grader at All Souls. Hobby is probably golf but frankly I end up watching my son play, because he’s a competitive junior golfer, so I spend more time watching or caddying for him than I do actually playing. So that’s probably my biggest pastime. But like everybody, the outdoors. It’s Colorado. We work a lot in health care, and that’s OK.

Robinson: Can you— Let me check my time, how are we?

Sinclair: You’re doing great, yeah you’re doing great.

Erling: You’re fine, yeah.

Robinson: Can you — I know it’s a long path, but can you sort of give us a version of your path to this role and to Colorado Springs?

Erling: To this role here?

Robinson: Yes to here, sort of a little bit about where you, how you got from, because you were at UVA, right, for your residency? And then Denver and then here?

Erling: Yeah. Sure. So I went to medical school at Johns Hopkins, did my residency at UVA, took my first job out of residency practicing 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 did that for years and did some other entrepreneurial side things. I got my MBA at the University of Colorado in Denver and then worked for Envision Health Care, leading, they have their joint venture with HCA Hospital, so I did that for three years. And that’s really where — That was a lot of travel all over the country, too much time away from the family, and then an opportunity — I frankly missed that connection to the community. So when you’re helping manage practices in communities that are a plane ride away that you don’t live in, it’s very different than working in your own community where your family, your friends, your neighbors are going to use your health facilities. And so 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 was excited to come back. So I came back in March of 2016 as a chief medical officer for our north Denver hospitals and then Peter Banko asked me to join his team as chief clinical officer in December 2016, same year. And then obviously Peter, who’s our CEO, and Tom Gessel who’s our operating group CEO, asked me if I would do this, I was happy to do it.

Robinson: Do you still get to work on the clinical side?

Erling: I don’t.

Robinson: You don’t. Is that because of this role that you’re in at the moment or were you already more in the—

Erling: I was really — 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. I said if I’m going to do this and truly be successful at it, I want it to be all in. There’s two different strategies for docs. There’s a lot to be said for still being 20 percent clinical, it gives you a little bit of credibility with the docs, that you’re still in the trenches, you’re still doing the work. But for what I wanted to do, I was worried that it would be impossible if I was trying to split my time.

Robinson: I’m just going to check that this is my last question. What— So there’s been huge changes in not just the practice of medicine but in the lifestyle surrounding medicine over the past couple of decades. Do you have advice for people going into medicine now, as a career? Do you have advice that you give people?

Erling: There’s no better calling. If you’re interested in it, you absolutely should pursue it. I think there was a time when a lot of people went into medicine for the wrong reason — or, at least some people went into medicine for the wrong reason. 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.

Robinson: What haven’t I asked that’s important to know about you or the work you’re doing here?

Erling: I think you covered it.

Sinclair: Absolutely. That was very efficient, very good.