Garren Colvin leads St. Elizabeth along twin paths of economic development and mission-driven care

When Garren Colvin was named the new President and Chief Executive Officer of St. Elizabeth Healthcare in June 2015, it capped a steady climb through the ranks for the Northern Kentucky native. He’s been with St. Elizabeth for 33 years — since a student co-op assignment while working on an accounting and business administration degree at Thomas More College — and served as both Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer during his tenure.
Colvin had a significant role in the merger of the former St. Luke Hospitals and St. Elizabeth in 2008 and provided expertise during the consolidation of Patient First and Summit Medical Group into St. Elizabeth Physicians in 2010. Just a few months ago St. Elizabeth announced it was absorbing OHC’s adult cancer and blood disorders practice in order to create Northern Kentucky’s first Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Under his leadership and direction, St. Elizabeth has shown consistent and stable financial performance and received numerous national accolades and industry recognition.
Garren Colvin“This community is my home,” Colvin said in his introductory news release. “This is more than a job; it’s personal for me. It’s a huge responsibility to care for your neighbors, friends and family members. I am humbled by this opportunity.”
Colvin was a three-sport standout at Ludlow High School and is a member of the Northern Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.
Now he leads Northern Kentucky’s preeminent healthcare system — including seven major facilities and more than 115 primary care and specialty office locations in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio — and has become one of the region’s highest-profile leaders.
One of Skyward’s core focus areas for the next five years is improving the region’s overall health. Only half of the adults in Northern Kentucky rate their health status as excellent or very good, and the civic organization’s goal is to move an additional 20,000 adults (or an additional nine percent) into excellent or very good health status by 2020.
Led by Colvin, St. Elizabeth will play a major role in improving health throughout the region. NKY Thrives asked him about that focus, the company’s strategies and his hopes for Northern Kentucky in the future.
 NKY Thrives: How can St. Elizabeth help the Northern Kentucky region move more adults into excellent or very good health status?
Garren Colvin: Our long-range strategic plan has the very same mission as the myNKU plan — to make our region healthier. We’re focusing on three major areas of need: mental health, heart health and obesity. We want to make a dent in each of those health challenges, and we start in elementary and middle schools educating kids about eating better and not smoking. We hope they take those health lessons home with them. We also work to educate adults across the region through our Smart Health Today website and newsletter.
 An important sub-goal in Skyward’s myNKY plan is to increase regional access to mental health and substance abuse services over the next five years. What role can St. Elizabeth play in helping the region accomplish this goal?
Again, education is a key part of our healthcare plan around mental health and substance abuse. The heroin epidemic has to be addressed and halted, and I’ve personally worked to help the community understand the issues around substance abuse.
St. Elizabeth is treating heroin addiction — and all addictions — as a disease that requires medically assisted therapy. There’s a lot of misconception around the issue of substance abuse. Some people think addicts choose to become addicted and therefore shouldn’t be considered a community problem, but that’s not true. All of us are wired differently, and so one person can take an Oxycontin painkiller after having knee surgery and be immediately addicted, while that drug doesn’t effect another person. It’s all about chemical makeup in individuals, so there’s not a lot of choice there.
 Why have you decided to be such a public advocate in the fight against heroin addiction?
I don’t know if I should be so out in front, but the community can’t afford for me not to do it. The St. Elizabeth board is 100 percent behind my efforts. My message of addiction being a medical issue more than a criminal issue has not been universally well received, but I have to keep pushing us to address this epidemic seriously. As a community, we can’t afford to lose this battle.
 A major trend in healthcare in recent years has been for hospital organizations to expand services into neighborhoods and communities, rather than expect patients to come to one central location. Do you expect St. Elizabeth to continue expanding into more Northern Kentucky communities?
The big trend in healthcare these days is taking care of patients where and when they want to be cared for. Often that means in their community instead of at our main hospital, and more and more it’ll mean avoiding brick-and-mortar offices altogether. We’re working on ways for people to connect with our healthcare professionals online, from their phones or pads, and work more on prevention instead of treatment.
 Thanks to sponsorship by the Diocese of Covington, St. Elizabeth has made it a priority to care for everyone, regardless of ability to pay for services; in 2014 alone you provided more than $112 million in uncompensated care. In the current climate of rising healthcare costs and budget constraints, why is this mission still important to you and the organization?
I can tell you that our commitment to our mission drives St. Elizabeth staff every day. We need to better understand the forces impacting our ability to fulfill our mission, whether that’s poverty, crime, education or other societal issues that come together to decrease people’s ability to be healthy. We want to help beyond simply being the place you go when you’re sick. We are a community asset, and sometimes people don’t understand that.
 Northern Kentucky leaders focus a lot of energy on attracting and retaining high-paying jobs in the region. What is your outlook for increasing high-paying jobs in the healthcare fields in Northern Kentucky in the near term and long-term?
There will always be a need for clinical professionals in healthcare. We’re always trying to recruit physicians, nurses and other skilled practitioners, so the job outlook for people in those professions is bright.
 How will your partnership in NKU’s Health Innovation Center help develop the next generation of healthcare leaders in Northern Kentucky?
The NKU partnership is great because the university will ensure a good number of highly trained graduates every year and they’ll shift resources and focus when we identify changing needs. For instance, if we see that we’ll need more respiratory therapists in the near future, NKU can shift its class schedule and recruitment practices to produce more respiratory therapists.
Many of our clinical professionals require ongoing training and certification, so the Health Innovation Center will also provide those services for our staff instead of us having to send them out of town to do their continuing education.
 Your announcement of absorbing OHC practices in Northern Kentucky positions St. Elizabeth to take cancer care to the “next level.” How do you envision that care impacting high cancer diagnosis rates in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties?
This new partnership will allow us to work on cancer care from start to finish. We’ll be more involved in research and clinical trials to help identify the early stages of cancer — your outcomes significantly increase if you find and start treating cancer as early as possible. So we’ll be able to identify the disease earlier and start treatment earlier with new state-of-the-art treatments, some of which we’ll be developing ourselves through more access to clinical trials as part of the Mayo Clinic Care Network.
 You're a life-long Northern Kentuckian with a key leadership role in helping your family, friends and neighbors manage their healthcare. You say that your role is more than a job, it’s personal. What does success look like for you and St. Elizabeth within the Northern Kentucky community?
When I started at St. Elizabeth 33 years ago, I never dreamed of becoming the CEO. I just loved the financial aspect of managing hospitals, then I fell in love with the St. Elizabeth mission of improving the health outcomes of people across Northern Kentucky. Everyone in our organization has one goal in mind — to make the community healthier — and since probably 90 percent of our staff live in Northern Kentucky as well, they’re really dedicated to making this a great place to be.
I see on a daily basis what St. Elizabeth people do and how they make a difference in others’ lives. Last winter, to just boil it down to one story, someone was being discharged from our emergency department and some staff members noticed she was walking out barefooted. One of our nurses gave the woman her own shoes, but secretly, so no one — including her coworkers — could see. It took a long time for that story to work its way up to me, but I eventually heard about it. When we live the St. Elizabeth mission like that, that’s what success looks like.
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