As rural hospitals across the country fight to stay open in the face of population loss, UCHealth in Aurora, Colo., has the opposite problem.
The population around Denver is growing so quickly that the health system is opening community hospitals around the region to serve patients conveniently and relieve capacity strains on the main campus.
Over the past few months, UCHealth, whose flagship is the University of Colorado Hospital, has opened UCHealth Grandview Hospital in Colorado Springs and UCHealth Broomfield Hospital in Broomfield, Colo. In August, UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital in Longmont is slated to open.
And last week, UCHealth broke ground on the fourth of five community hospitals that it is building as part of a major expansion plan.
Its six-story, $310 million UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital is expected to open in early 2019, the academic medical system said in a release. It is going up in Highlands Ranch, a booming suburb of Denver located about 12 miles south of the city.
"As construction begins at the site of the future Highlands Ranch Hospital, we look ahead with great anticipation to the unique and advanced health services we will be offering to this community and beyond," said hospital CEO Diane Cookson.
The U.S. Census Bureau ranked Denver last year as the nation's fast-growing large city.
Denver's population is growing at about 3% per year, vaulting the metropolitan area into the top 20 nationally.
Building community hospitals into such a boom makes sense, said Scott Phillips, managing director of healthcare consultancy Healthcare Management Partners in Nashville.
As an academic medical center, UCHealth needs room for high-acuity patients at its main campus and most inpatient care can be done in less-costly community hospitals, Phillips said.
For example, a stay in a community hospital that costs $2,000 typically costs $3,000 to $5,000 at a tertiary and quaternary hospital that has much higher overhead for equipment and specialized staffing, he said.
Community hospitals also cost about $500,000 to $1 million per bed to build and equip versus as much as $3 million per bed at academic medical centers, Phillips said.
That's far less expensive than expanding on the main campus for patients that can be more conveniently served in a community hospital, he said. "They would rather see them in a more appropriate setting," he said.
UCHealth Highlands Ranch will open with 72 beds and have room to expand, the system said in a release.
It will feature a birth center, including C-section operating rooms and a Level II neo-natal ICU. It also will offer an emergency department, advanced cardiac services and complete imaging.
"By building a hospital and an outpatient medical building including a cancer center in Highlands Ranch, we will be able to provide these patients with advanced care close to home," said Elizabeth Concordia, UCHealth president and CEO, in a statement. "This is a key priority as we work to improve the overall experience of our patients."
An adjacent medical office building will house a two-story cancer center. The population around Highlands Ranch is expected to grow by 25% by 2025, the release said.
On the other end of the spectrum, rural hospitals across the country are struggling with population loss in their communities and the ability to attract physicians to towns that are shrinking, Phillips said.
Rural hospitals generally have been holding on by taking beds offline, Phillips said. But with a heavy reliance on government-paid insurance — for many they get 75% of their revenue from Medicare and Medicaid compared to less than 50% for the average hospital — any changes to government funding will hit them especially hard, he said.
Over the past 25 years, about one-third of rural hospital beds have come offline, but only one in six has closed, said Phillips, whose firm specializes in rural hospital consulting. Rural hospitals comprise about 1,300 of the total 4,700 hospitals across the country.
He said many rural hospitals will be converted to major outpatient centers and they can benefit from advances in telemedicine to ease physician shortages.