August 2, 2013 Updated: August 2, 2013 at 5:50 pm
Memorial Hospital's trauma unit could join the ranks of Colorado's most elite facilities under a plan announced Thursday to seek the state's highest designation for trauma care.
Hospital officials said they intend to upgrade Memorial Central's Level II trauma unit to a Level I facility, making it Colorado's first top-tier unit outside the Denver area.
Officials pitched the plan as the fulfillment of University of Colorado Health's promise to Colorado Springs voters to create a Level I center - while also providing faster, more intense care for residents across southern Colorado.
"Having a Level I trauma center in our community will save lives," said Dr. Patrick Faricy, Memorial Hospitals's chief medical officer. "And this will also help Memorial be one of the finest hospitals in our region."
The upgrade is expected to take one to three years.
Changes should be evident before the designation is granted, though, because Memorial Hospital must showcase its new capabilities to regulators with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Hospital officials did not say when they plan to turn in the application.
Myriad details must first be sorted out.
Doctors plan to complete a review of how many new physicians and surgeons should be hired, as well as what equipment is needed.
Hospital officials offered no cost estimate for the project, nor any idea of how many jobs the designation would create in Colorado Springs.
"We are really at the beginning stages of the assessment," said Bruce Schroffel, chief executive of University of Colorado Health.
As a Level II facility, Memorial has many of the same capabilities as a Level I unit, said Dr. Andrew Berson, director of Memorial Hospital's trauma and acute care surgery services.
The difference revolves mainly around surgical services - specifically, for the most severe orthopedic emergencies, Berson said.
For example, complex pelvic fractures, as well as instances where doctors must reattach severed fingers, could eventually be done at Memorial Central. All Level I units must have micro-surgical capabilities - essentially, an operating microscope that allows doctors to attach blood vessels at the microscopic level.
"It plugs those very small holes in our subspecialty capabilities that we don't have," Berson said.
Memorial has the busiest emergency room in the state - it saw 107,000 people in 2012.
Currently, Memorial flies patients needing Level 1 care to Denver hospitals, but transfers "very few" patients, Berson said. The exact number was not available Thursday.
The biggest difference between a Level II and a Level I unit comes in increased research and training, state health officials said.
A Level I unit must present at least 20 peer-reviewed research articles in a medical journal every three years, said Margaret Mohan, the state's interim trauma program manager.
Top-tier units also are known as teaching hospitals, which support physician residencies and interns. Memorial would draw heavily from the University of Colorado health system.
Four years ago, Memorial was fighting to simply keep its current Level II designation.
In July 2009, the American College of Surgeons - which also offers a trauma designation that is separate from the state's process - recommended pulling Memorial's Level II rating because of lagging scores with its neurosurgery program.
Memorial also had to file a plan of correction with Colorado's health department, concerning the state's Level II designation.
By filing the plan, Memorial avoided a downgrade in state ratings. In 2010, the hospital also regained the American College of Surgeon's Level II designation.
Hospital officials plan to seek a Level I designation from the college as well in the coming years.
"It's hard to grasp, because it sounds like this big leap we need to take," Berson said. "But clinically, honestly, we're already operating at a very high level."
The announcement comes as part of a massive improvement plan that began in October after voters approved leasing the hospital to University of Colorado Health.
The hospital is one year into a three-year, $90 million improvement project - one highlighted by the implementation of a $40.1 million electronic medical records system.
Since October, the hospital also has hired 14 cardiologists, two breast surgeons, two neurosurgeons, two cardiothoracic surgeons, a trauma surgeon and at least 75 support staff, according to a hospital report.
where Colorado Springs stands
There are four Level I trauma centers in Colorado:
- Denver Health Medical Center, Denver
- Swedish Medical Center, Englewood
- St. Anthony Hospital, Lakewood
- Children's Hospital Colorado, Aurora (trauma care for children only)
ON THE LEVEL
In Colorado, the agency that oversees trauma center designations is the state Department of Public Health and Environment. Hospitals' trauma centers are ranked according to the level of service they provide, with Level I centers offering the most comprehensive services and Level V, the most minimal.
Colorado Springs has no Level I trauma centers. Memorial Central and Penrose Hospital have the Level II designation. St. Francis Medical Center is a Level IV facility. Memorial Hospital North does not have a trauma center.
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