Home » Anticipating tomorrow’s health needs: NKY responds to evolving pandemic, but plans ahead to address future concerns

Anticipating tomorrow’s health needs: NKY responds to evolving pandemic, but plans ahead to address future concerns

St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood was among the first 11 hospital sites in Kentucky to receive the initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

From Market Review of Northern Kentucky

By Shannon Clinton

While focusing their efforts on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and treating those who contracted it, health care leaders in Northern Kentucky also continued to look to the future health needs of its community.

St. Elizabeth opened a new cancer center in 2020, increased its presence in southern Indiana, and tended to a budding partnership to help educate the health care practitioners of tomorrow.

As the predominant health care system in Northern Kentucky, St. Elizabeth Healthcare is based in Edgewood and has five facilities in Northern Kentucky, as well as many private physicians’ practices. In all it employs approximately 10,000 and encompasses about 120 primary and specialty locations in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. In 2019, the system treated more than 315,000 patients.

In October 2020, the $100 million St. Elizabeth Cancer Center opened on the Edgewood campus, resulting in about 100 new jobs. The 250,000-s.f., six-story facility will be able to treat nearly 500 patients a day.

Underscoring the need for such a facility, the American Cancer Society lists Kentucky as having an estimated 26,500 new cases of cancer in 2020 and 10,540 deaths, with the three most common types being lung, breast and colorectal cancers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists cancer as the second leading cause of death in the commonwealth.

These grim statistics illustrate the need for cancer care that includes convenient and proactive screening programs to detect cancer earlier and increase chances of better outcomes, said Sarah Giolando, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at St. Elizabeth.

“We know our community needs enhanced cancer care now. The opening of the St. Elizabeth Cancer Center will be a momentous occasion for our community as we work together to fight cancer,” said Garren Colvin, president and CEO of St. Elizabeth Healthcare. “Many Kentuckians rely on St. Elizabeth for quality treatment across the health care continuum. Now, we will be able to provide even greater access to more individuals facing a cancer diagnosis, right here in our region and nation.”

The cancer center offers new treatments and diagnostic tools, including a low-dose CT scan that finds cancer in earlier stages, Giolando said.

The state-of-the-art center was made possible in part after a successful fundraising campaign, with $35 million raised in Northern Kentucky and $1.5 million from the health care system’s own associates.

Now that it’s up and running, Giolando expects patients from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio to use the center. In addition to traditional medical treatments, services also include nutritional counseling, yoga, meditation, essential oils and more. Patients can access cancer survivor resources and participate in clinics in which they can share common experiences with other cancer patients and survivors.

“Having that all in one place and having a navigator that helps you navigate all of those resources is really, I think, a relief to people” battling cancer, she said. “There’s a lot of science out there that the environment can help in the healing process.”

The goal is to have 20% of the center’s cancer patients in active clinical trials, Giolando said. To do this, the center has partnered with the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center and the Mayo Clinic to have access to their clinical trial programs, as well as those conducted by the Minnesota-based national clinical trial network ACCRU – Academic and Community Cancer Research United.

“That gives our patients the most leading-edge treatments for those hard-to-treat cancers,” Giolando said.

Acquisitions and partnerships

Even amidst a pandemic, St. Elizabeth Healthcare has embarked on ambitious expansion plans, signing an agreement in May 2020 to acquire Lawrenceburg, Ind.- based Highpoint Health, subsequently renamed St. Elizabeth Dearborn. The agreement was finalized in early November.

St. Elizabeth had assisted Highpoint Health with finances in 2019, but the situation worsened with the impact of COVID-19, exacerbating challenges facing rural hospitals, such as declining reimbursements and escalating supply costs, Giolando said.

“That’s when our talks became more serious and we wanted to more quickly consummate the deal so we could assist them the way we needed to financially,” she said.

Plans are to invest $70 million there over the next five years, including new hospital/cancer center construction on the Greendale, Ind., campus.

Highpoint Health employees were transferred over to St. Elizabeth’s employment, and 40 new physicians and providers became partners in St. Elizabeth Physicians as part of the acquisition, Giolando said.

“Our joint vision is to create a new, comprehensive medical campus that encompasses not only the existing St. Elizabeth outpatient facility located in Greendale, but a dedicated cancer care center, full-service emergency department, a broad range of specialists, surgery center and inpatient beds, which would improve access to health care in the region into the future,” said St. Elizabeth President and CEO Garren Colvin at the time of the acquisition.

In September 2019, St. Elizabeth, the UK College of Medicine and Northern Kentucky University (NKU) launched a collaborative effort to open a four-year regional campus in Northern Kentucky, dubbed the UK College of Medicine Northern Kentucky Campus.

Its first class of 35 began their studies, and another class of 35 has since joined them, Giolando said.

“We’re very excited about that,” she said. “The class filled up very quickly with just amazingly qualified aspiring physicians.”

The new campus will help fill a nationwide need for more physicians and UK’s desire to expand educational opportunities for qualified candidates, Giolando said.

The goal is to encourage students to to stay in Northern Kentucky to practice medicine once they finish their education.

Dr. Steven Haist is associate dean and Dr. Meredith Landorf is assistant dean for the UK College of Medicine Northern Kentucky Campus.

Landorf said the first four classes to be admitted will each be comprised of 35.

“The class sizes are smaller and the medical community is a little bit smaller than Lexington,” she said.

Haist said most students hail from Kentucky and southern Ohio. Because of COVID-19, some of their instruction has had to go virtual, but lectures were being streamed in from Lexington already, so students were accustomed to the format.

He said St. Elizabeth was welcoming and helpful as plans for the new campus got underway.

“They already had a list of 110-plus physicians that were interested in teaching, and several of them have become involved with the program,” he said.

Pandemic response

Throughout the pandemic, St. Elizabeth has continued to enhance its patient and staff safety protocol to combat COVID-19. The NKY health care system increased sanitation measures, including electrostatic sprayers and UV light systems and high-tech vacuums.

St. Elizabeth was awarded $69 million in grants through the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund, and $98 million in advance payments from Medicare to assist in its pandemic response. That figure will be repaid via reduced reimbursements, Giolando said.

In the early days of the pandemic, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and other protective medical gear were concerning but supplies are better now, Giolando said. In late 2020, as cases spiked across the commonwealth, “COVID fatigue” has been a concern, as flu season also loomed. Still, Giolando remains hopeful.

“Though the numbers are even higher today, I think we feel much more in control of how we’re managing things, and that’s a good feeling,” she said.

St. Elizabeth avoided having to lay off any staff in 2020, despite reduced surgery volumes as procedures were postponed. Some employees were reassigned temporarily to areas of greatest need, like cleaning.

“We’ve been very proud of that and that was an intentional decision that we made early on in the pandemic,” Giolando said. St. Elizabeth Healthcare supplied backup support for long-term care and nursing home facilities early on in the pandemic and also supplied staff for area testing stations supported by state government. St. Elizabeth also has applied to become a vaccine distribution point.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the Northern Kentucky Health Department (NKY Health) focused its resources on preventing the spread of COVID-19 by working closely with local elected officials, the health care system, workplaces, schools, first responders and other state and local community partners to provide guidance, information and resources. NKY Health also managed the region’s disease investigation and contract tracing. The health department serves the 400,000 residents of Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties.

As cases spiked, the health department adjusted its strategy to prioritize how it investigates cases and notifies contacts and told residents to assume they were at heightened risk of exposure every time they interacted with people within 6 feet of each other for 15 minutes or longer.

COVID-19 vaccine

St. Elizabeth Healthcare was one of 11 hospitals to receive the initial doses of COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December 2020. The hospital received 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to administer to its staff members who are working directly with coronavirus patients.

Dr. Dora Savani, infectious disease specialist, was the first person to be given the vaccine at St. Elizabeth. Savani’s “tireless dedication and leadership to caring for our patients with COVID-19 has been inspiring to all of us at St. Elizabeth,” the health care system said on its Facebook page.

Hands-on health care learning

Health care students at NKU get state-of- the-art training at the university’s Health Innovation Center (HIC). The center supports an integrated portfolio of programs to prepare a new generation of health care professionals for the future and to provide solutions to the health and wellness challenges of the region and commonwealth. It is an advanced facility designed for transdisciplinary research and collaboration between the campus and the community. Throughout the building are spaces for learning, collaboration and practice. The HIC includes high-tech, real-world learning spaces like the St. Elizabeth Simulation Center and collaborative spaces from formal meeting rooms to informal gathering nooks.

NKU announced its Health Care Commercialization Certificate program in fall 2020, the nation’s first graduate program focused on developing and launching new products or services in the health care marketplace. The new program focuses on translating fundamental research and development into products, services and procedures that are cost-effective and efficient.

Students can complete the HCC Certificate in as few as six months. HCC’s curriculum is geared toward medical providers, entrepreneurs and those ready to advance their careers.