Colorado Medical Society

Red Rocks Cancer Center: A “dream come true” for patients and physicians

Sunday, July 01, 2012 01:24 PM

Sara Burnett, CMS contributing writer

From the moment patients and their families enter Red Rocks Cancer Center, they get the sense this place is different.

Behind a central desk is the cancer care coordinator – the nurse who will help arrange everything from transportation to hats and wigs to the annual Cancer Survivors Day celebration. A water feature on one wall emits a soft, soothing sound. A hallway leads outside to the Serenity Garden. And any medical services the patient needs – surgery, medical oncology, PET/CT, radiation oncology or physiotherapy – are located within a few feet. That means no need to drive from one office to another for appointments and no having to wait days for physicians in different locations to coordinate care.

“We all hear it,” says Elizabeth Brew, MD, a surgeon with Surgical Specialists of Colorado. “Patients’ faces light up. They’ll say ‘You mean I can get everything done right here?’”

The cancer center is part of Red Rocks Medical Center in Golden, a physician-led and owned facility that opened in 2010 and, one physician said, is “a dream come true.”

“It’s like leaving your home and going to your home to go to work,” said Kevin Schewe, MD. “I’m in my 26th year of private practice of radiation and it is the best place I’ve ever worked … You have to pinch yourself sometimes.”

The idea for the facility came about six years ago, just after Surgical Specialists of Colorado opened Clear Creek Surgery Center in Wheat Ridge. The group began discussing its next goals. Surgeon Rebecca Wiebe, MD, envisioned a cancer center, where all of the services a cancer patient needed could be found under one roof and care could be provided in a faster, more cost-effective manner.

They began building on that vision and inviting other like-minded physicians in other specialties to join them, until they had a group of about 30 physicians. Most of them had been working together for anywhere from five to 15 years.

“We wanted doctors who we would trust to take care of us or our family if any of us became ill,” Schewe said.

They wanted something else, too: To be the ones in charge.

“We wanted to do it ourselves, to have ownership in it,” Schewe said. “And not strictly financial ownership. We wanted to own the product of our labor.”

They began looking for sites, and settled on one on Indiana Street near 6th Avenue – in the heart of the area the physicians had been practicing in for years.

Once they had a plan in place, they invited the three main health care systems in the area to bid to become their partner in the venture – thereby securing the substantial capital needed to establish the outpatient surgery center and the radiology and radiation oncology departments. The three systems were asked in a request for proposals to make their best offer, and also to explain why they would be the best partner. HealthONE won the bid.

The first group of doctors moved in to the building in November 2010, and the move-in process was staggered, with radiation opening in January 2011 and the surgery center in September 2011. Imaging, the breast center and the surgery center are on the first floor. On the third floor are other medical offices, including dermatology, urology, retina and ophthalmology.

Each practice was able to design its own space. Radiation oncology, for example, was designed to feel like a home, complete with small kitchen areas, coffee and tea service, puzzle tables, fireplaces and hardwood floors. The consult rooms have carpeting and couches with throw pillows, so conversations don’t have to occur in the more sterile examination rooms.

The facility also has a gourmet kitchen, where a holistic chef teaches classes three times a month titled “Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen.”

Brew said the arrangement makes life easier both for patients and the medical staff.

“There’s a real efficiency of care that you get here that you don’t get at a hospital,” she said. “I can see a woman in my office, have a question about something, send her down to the breast center, do an ultrasound, have the radiologist look at it and get it right back.”

The arrangement has brought cost efficiencies because staff don’t have to chase down results or repeat tests or exams. Because the physicians make up the organization’s board, they are accountable to one another about everything from communication to which supplies to buy. And twice a month, all physicians, as well as staff such as the mammography and radiology technicians, participate in the group’s Tumor Board. Each patient’s primary care physician also is invited.

“The coordination of care is huge,” said Terri Rossi, chief operating officer for Surgical Specialists of Colorado.

Brew said she believes she and her colleagues are “lucky, but not unique.” She said they were fortunate to have people like Rossi who helped guide the physicians’ vision and to ensure the project stayed on track.

“It’s so consuming you need someone like Terri who keeps that vision going,” she said.

She and Schewe also noted that the area hospitals were not thrilled with the idea of what they were doing at first. Though the physicians remain affiliated with and practicing in hospital settings, there have been some tough times. That’s when it was especially important to know that they all were in it together.

“Physicians as a group tend to be all the individual CEOs of their own empires, and the hospitals and the insurance industry take advantage of us because we don’t come together,” Schewe said. “If you want to do something similar, you need to band together with physicians who are like minded and who you trust in terms of getting the kind of care you would want to receive. You cannot do it alone.”