Partnerships help St. Elizabeth Healthcare expand footprint in NKY

By Greg Paeth

In 2018 during Lung Cancer Awareness Month, St. Elizabeth Healthcare thoracic surgeon Dr. Royce Calhoun narrated a complex lung cancer surgery he previously performed, live on Facebook.

St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Sun Behavioral Health opened the doors for their 197-bed behavioral health hospital in Erlanger early in 2018.

Last September, St. Elizabeth, the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and Northern Kentucky University cut the ribbon in Highland Heights for UK’s second four-year regional campus in the state and welcomed an inaugural class of 35 medical students.

If everything goes as planned, the dominant health care provider in Northern Kentucky will open a $140 million cancer center in August, an event that will make St. Elizabeth a major player in the business of cancer care in highly competitive Greater Cincinnati and beyond.

These three projects represent some of the most significant steps forward for St. Elizabeth, which is expected to have revenues of more than $1 billion for 2019 and ranks among the top four or five hospital systems in Greater Cincinnati, the 29th largest metropolitan market in the country with a population of more than 2.1 million.

St. Elizabeth has 120 locations, including hospitals, five emergency rooms, clinics and doctors’ offices in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana and treated upwards of 315,000 patients over a one-year period, the hospital said.

Based on an analysis by U.S. News and World Report, St. Elizabeth is doing far more than just rolling out a seemingly endless array of new programs that produce impressive numbers.

The well-respected magazine that has examined hospital care for 30 years ranked St. Elizabeth second-best in the state when it assessed how the hospital performed in 16 specialties.

“Being number two to UK is nothing to be ashamed of and not too long ago we were number one. We have gone back and forth with UK a couple of times,” said Garren Colvin, president and CEO of the healthcare system. Colvin was referring to the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital in Lexington, which U.S. News and World Report named the number one hospital in 2019.

Cincinnati’s Christ Hospital, one of St. Elizabeth’s biggest competitors in the region, was the top-ranked hospital in Cincinnati and number seven in Ohio, the magazine reported.

With the opening of the cancer center less than a year away, Colvin made it clear that St. Elizabeth has made cancer care one of its top priorities.

“August is when we will occupy the new building, but we started our new program long before we will open the doors,” Colvin said. “We have already implemented a CT lung screening program and we just surpassed our 10,000th lung CT screen, which is probably one of the top three programs in the country when you look at volume.

“Unfortunately, we’re in Kentucky, a hot spot for lung cancer. But what we have seen is a significant reduction in stage 3 and 4 cancers and a significant increase in stage 1 and 2,” said Colvin, pointing out that the stage 1 and 2 cancers usually can be cured while the more advanced cancers often resist treatment.

The American Cancer Society estimated that 26,400 Kentuckians would be diagnosed with lung cancer this year and that 10,580 would die from the disease.

Colvin also made it clear that St. Elizabeth is enthusiastic about the medical students who are in their first year at the Highland Heights campus.

“What’s amazing is the level of talent we were able to attract in this first class,” Colvin said. “They will complete their first two years of book work and the third and fourth year will be their clinicals and those will take place in our system. We’re excited to be part of it.”

The next step will be developing residency programs so that at least some of the graduates might be convinced to practice medicine in Northern Kentucky, Colvin said.

The hospital system also has entered the battle against opioid abuse in at least three different ways.

The Sun Behavioral Health Hospital, for which St. Elizabeth is a partner, treats patients with mental health issues as well as addictions that may be linked to personality disorders.


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The hospital also teamed up in September with 22 other hospitals in the state to file a lawsuit against the manufacturers, distributors and retailers of opioid-based drugs.

“I can tell you the why (for filing the suit),” Colvin said. “When we started tracking the millions and millions of dollars that we have spent on this issue … we felt we needed to figure out if we could be a part of the lawsuit in order to get funds to help people who were addicted recover. It’s really a volume issue. The volume of people addicted far outweighs the amount of services that we can provide, and so we felt that if the manufacturers were interested in settling we wanted to be in the forefront of any settlement.”

For 2017, the law firm that represents St. Elizabeth said that 1,566 people died of opioid overdoses in the state while 782 were killed in auto accidents.

Yet another opioid abuse program is in place at NKU, where staff members are working with two grants that total $1.8 million for programs that are scheduled to run through 2022. One grant covers the costs for substance use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery assistance in Owen County, according to Valerie Gray Hardcastle, St. Elizabeth Healthcare Executive Director of the Institute for Health Innovation at NKU.

The other grant enables the institute to develop online training for substance use disorder Peer Support Specialists, allowing the program to thrive in rural areas, Hardcastle said.

“For 2020, we are also hoping to launch a new initiative which will better integrate law enforcement and the justice system from our rural counties of Northern Kentucky into the substance use disorder treatment and recovery continuum,” she said.

Although there’s no question that St. Elizabeth is the dominant healthcare provider in Northern Kentucky, it’s difficult to determine how many people receive care at satellites of Cincinnati hospitals that are scattered throughout Northern Kentucky.

The well-respected Christ Hospital has a family care office in Fort Mitchell and a sprawling outpatient center in Fort Wright.

St. Elizabeth reaches notable lung cancer screening milestone

In November, St. Elizabeth Healthcare performed its 10,000th lung screening, a significant and rare milestone only held by a handful of other systems in the country. The system’s estimated rolling 12-month completion rate for eligible patients is over 25%, exceeding the national average of less than 5%, based on 2016 data presented at the 2018 American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting.

Kentucky ranks worst in the country for lung cancer diagnosis and death rates, according to 2018 data from the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries reported by the American Cancer Society. Based on the most recent rates published for the current American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging system, when lung cancer is diagnosed and treated early (Stage I), the five-year survival rate can exceed 90%. This is all the more important since Kentucky is consistently one of the top two states in smoking rates, according to 2018 CDC data.

“That’s why we have stepped up to solve a problem that’s right here,” shared Dr. Doug Flora, executive medical director of oncology services at St. Elizabeth. “We want our patients, their families and the community to do more than recognize Lung Cancer Awareness Month in November – let’s get more area residents screened and save lives.”

The lung screening is a low-dose CT scan that has now identified about 100 lung cancers under Stage 3. Early detection offers more options, namely allowing St. Elizabeth surgeons and their teams to remove the tumors and often spare lung cancer patients the need for chemotherapy. For patients who are not surgical candidates, the radiation oncology team also has excellent means to eradicate the cancer.

“By finding these tumors at an earlier Stage 1 or 2, we are seeing a ‘stage migration’ shift. Pinpointing tumors at lower stages significantly increases chances of survival,” said Dr. Michael Gieske, medical director of lung cancer screening at St. Elizabeth. “The screenings are already extending and saving lives.”

St. Elizabeth has recruited and developed a large multidisciplinary team to combat lung cancer, led by highly qualified lung cancer surgeons, radiologists, pulmonologists, primary care physicians, nurse navigators and medical and radiation oncologists. Under their direction, a comprehensive lung cancer screening program was built that is among the country’s most robust and successful. Early on, St. Elizabeth obtained and continues to maintain certifications as a Screening Center of Excellence and a Diagnostic Imaging Center of Excellence.