The local health care industry saw a change in leadership at one of the city’s largest hospitals along with the nurse shortage and two epidemics — opioid and teen vaping — topping headlines in 2018.

Shifting roles

In early August, the Penrose-St. Francis Health Services Board of Directors unanimously selected the interim chief executive officer to fill the spot long-term.

The move made Dr. Brian Erling one of fewer than 10 physicians in Colorado to lead a hospital system, according to an August press release from Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.

After Erling took over, the hospital system announced a shift in its plan to build a new medical campus to the city’s west in favor of looking north.

“While the initial plan to replace Penrose Hospital with a new hospital on the hill [near Fillmore Street and Centennial Boulevard] was well informed at the time, the market has changed and it no longer would have addressed the projected growth and development for our region,” Erling told the Business Journal in an email. “Building a medical campus in the area of projected population growth in our city is strategically stronger and will ensure that Penrose-St. Francis will continue to be our region’s leading health care system.”

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He added there is evidence that building on the previously planned 80 acres might have decreased walk-in and emergency medical services volumes.

“To spend over half a billion dollars to decrease our ability to execute on our mission doesn’t make sense,” Erling said.

Penrose-St. Francis Health Services is in the process of purchasing a piece of land farther north where it will build a third medical campus.

Erling was appointed interim CEO after longtime CEO Margaret Sabin stepped down on March 16.

Sabin has since been appointed by Children’s Hospital Colorado to its southern Colorado leadership team.

She will assume the role of Southern Region president for Children’s Colorado on Jan. 7, according to a December press release from Children’s.

“I am honored to join Children’s Colorado and continue to expand the great work this organization is doing in our community,” Sabin said in the release.

Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs is set to open its doors to patients in spring 2019.

The 111-bed hospital at Union Boulevard and Briargate Parkway will house the Pikes Peak region’s first pediatric-only emergency department and operating rooms.

In high demand

Efforts to ease the nurse shortage this year include a new law passed last session that allows the state’s community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

Pueblo Community College was among the first seven schools in the state approved to offer the four-year nursing degree programs, Paula Kirchner, the college’s nursing program director, told the Business Journal in June.

She said allowing additional colleges to have four-year programs can, in the long term, help ease the nursing shortage.

The college also plans to roll out an online BSN program with a community practicum option, she said, adding applications will be accepted after the school’s curriculum is finalized.

Additionally, CSU-Pueblo now has a new Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree that will provide the training and tools for nurse practitioners to deliver critical services to patients and even to open up their own offices.

The program, from which the first DNPs will graduate in May 2020, offers students a choice of four program specialty areas: adult/gerontology acute care, adult/gerontology acute care plus family, psychiatric-mental health and a population focus for students with a master’s degree as a nurse educator.

Meanwhile, the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UCCS started offering a new program that will enable registered nurses who already hold an associate degree to complete a bachelor’s degree online.

The nursing school partnered with UCHealth Memorial Hospital to create the program with the first class of 24 set to graduate as registered nurses in spring 2020.

A tale of two epidemics

Health care professionals in El Paso County found themselves dealing with not one but two epidemics this year.

More than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, which is a jump from the previous year’s 64,000 overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado had 912 reported drug overdose deaths in 2016, which also was a jump from the previous year, according to the Colorado Health Institute. The Centennial State has set records for drug overdose deaths in 13 of the past 15 years.

Opioid deaths nearly doubled in El Paso County — from 66 to 120 — between 2013 and 2016.

In 2017, the Colorado Hospital Association launched its Opioid Safety Pilot, a six-month effort to decrease opioid administration in 10 hospital emergency departments.

“The association worked to ensure that the departments selected covered a wide variety of communities and facility types,” Cara Welch, director of communications for the organization, said in an email. “For example, there were sites in the Denver metro area and also in rural Colorado. There was a Level I Trauma Center as well as freestanding emergency departments.”

The pilot’s alternative to opioids (also known as ALTO) protocols were included in the Colorado Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians 2017 Opioid Prescribing & Treatment Guidelines.

The 10 departments achieved an average 36 percent reduction in the administration of opioids during the trial while increasing their use of alternatives by 31 percent.

Because of the success of the pilot program, now called the Colorado ALTO Project, Welch said the association rolled it out to all Colorado hospitals throughout 2018.

Another epidemic recently brought to light is the rapid rise of teen vaping.

Teen e-cigarette use in Colorado is twice the national average, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Also, e-cigarettes are the most common tobacco product used by teens both statewide and in El Paso County. About 23 percent of youths smoke e-cigarettes in El Paso County while roughly 7 percent use traditional cigarettes, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.

“That’s the challenge that we’re up against with the teen vaping epidemic, is the marketing and misinformation,” Dacia Hudson, program manager for the Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership at El Paso County Health, told the Business Journal earlier this month. “The tobacco industry is known for their heavy-hitting, very well done marketing campaigns, and the e-cig companies are duplicating that by targeting youth and saying they are a healthier option.”

E-cigarette marketing isn’t covered by federal advertising laws that impact cigarette companies. And in Colorado, as in most states, e-cigarettes aren’t subject to excise taxes that are applied to cigarettes.