For UCH’s new Community Relations chief, it’s about ‘presence’

Keith Peterson harnesses his 30-year tenure at UCH to focus on the community’s most pressing health needs
Jan. 24, 2017
Keith Peterson poses outside of University of Colorado Hospital
Keith Peterson, University of Colorado Hospital’s ‘new’ director of Community Relations. Use same photo for the external tease.

University of Colorado Hospital has tapped a 30-year employee to be the first director of Community Relations in the institution’s 131-year history.

While Keith Peterson is a familiar face at UCH, some may be surprised at his tenure, seeing as the man doesn’t look much older than about 30 (he’s 53; his firstborn son K.C. is 27). Peterson’s experience positions him well to pioneer the new Community Relations role, one that he considers vital well beyond satisfying Affordable Care Act mandates. He wants to help UCHealth’s academic medical center weave its vision, “From health care to health,” into the fabric of its home communities.

Like many people, Peterson’s road to his new job didn’t follow a straight line. Nor did the path to UCH. The Hawaii native was six years into an undergraduate program in sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1986 when the woman who would become his wife, Michelle, told him, “You know, at some point you’re going to have to leave Boulder.”

Peterson really liked Boulder, but did see the need to get on with his life. He and Michelle moved to Denver, where he applied for a job as a temporary pneumatic tube operator at UCH’s Ninth Avenue campus.

Not qualified

You may be familiar with the pneumatic tube systems that whisk plastic bullets of medications and lab samples throughout UCHealth hospitals. Peterson’s job had nothing to do with that. He was, decades before Epic, part of a most non-electronic health record system.

“I sat at a little table at a tube station in the file room,” Peterson explained. “The tube arrived, and I pulled a note out of it.”

The note requested a patient’s medical record. Peterson handed the note to a file clerk, who retrieved the file. This division of labor was deliberate.

“I was not qualified to actually pull the file,” Peterson said, smiling at the memory.

When the file clerk returned with the medical record, Peterson folded it into another pneumatic-tube pod and sent it off. Epic now handles all this at something approaching the speed of light.

Peterson was soon promoted to full-time pneumatic tube operator, and then to file clerk, then to a job handling incomplete patient charts, and then to one ensuring that physicians had completed the Medicare attestation forms the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services required for reimbursement. All of it was quintessential back-office work.

Move to the front

That changed when the job of supervising the information desk opened up, which Peterson took, later adding the telephone operators and patient transport to his portfolio. He had been at the hospital for 11 years by then, still hadn’t graduated from college and was getting restless. That’s when Donna Koepple, who ran Human Resources at the time, approached him about an initiative to revamp the UCH culture. It involved training at the Disney Institute in Orlando. She wanted to send him, but needed his commitment to stick around.

Peterson committed, and he soon added the informal position of culture ambassador to his other duties. He remembers this happening in 1997 only because his son Koa was born that year. Otherwise, it was all a blur.

“My wife used to bring Koa to the hospital so I could spend time with him because I was just here all the time,” Peterson said.

Peterson got involved in the design of the Anschutz Outpatient Pavilion, which incorporated Disney learnings. Examples included back hallways and service elevators for “backstage” operations, and also the AOP parking lot, whose fan shape funnels patients to the entrance. When the building opened in 1999, Peterson became the operations manager, serving as the go-to for all things plant and equipment in Aurora (most of the hospital was still at the Ninth Avenue campus).

With the hospital’s final move to the Anschutz Medical Campus in 2007, Peterson took over Parking Operations, Environmental Services, and Volunteer Services, which included the hospital gift shops. Notably, he served as the point man in an ongoing, mind-bending parking shuffle as the campus expanded.

By July 25, 2016, Peterson had been serving for nine years as director of Guest Relations. He was responsible for 400 employees and 250 contractors in Environmental Services (including linen, itself a $2 million-a-year endeavor). The next day, he took on his new role as the hospital’s director of Community Relations.

The switch wasn’t a reach, said Jeff Thompson, UCHealth’s vice president of Government and Corporate Relations, in an email. “With Keith’s long-term involvement with UCH Guest Relations, with our Anschutz Medical Campus partners and with neighborhood and community outreach, he was seen as a natural fit for this new position,” Thompson said.

To the community

UCH is an academic medical center. While it serves the community through employee volunteerism and various programs, its primary focus (besides serving as a hospital capable of handling the toughest cases across a wide range of diseases, injuries and conditions) has been educating the next generation of doctors, nurses and other medical providers and hosting clinical research. But UCH also accounts for much of the $500 million a year UCHealth hospitals provide in uncompensated and subsidized care – a major community benefit.

Affordable Care Act mandates were a big part of the hospital’s decision to put a man of Peterson’s skills and experience on the community relations case full-time. The act requires that all nonprofit hospitals to show they’re deserving of nonprofit tax status by identifying the biggest health needs of their communities every three years and taking concrete steps to address them.

Peterson aims to take UCH’s community benefits work beyond the law’s minimum requirements. His experience as one of the pioneers on the new campus in north Aurora was formative, he says. The Ninth Avenue campus was ensconced in mostly well-to-do Denver neighborhoods. Not so with the new location.

“Being one of the first managers out here, it was really apparent that we were in a totally different environment,” he said.

Peterson took steps on his own: he’s already on the boards of the Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, Visit Aurora, the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, and Community-Campus Partnership, among other volunteer work. Now, at the helm of UCH’s community-benefits efforts, he’s in a position to make a much bigger impact in Aurora, across metropolitan Denver, and beyond (technically, the UCH “community” encompasses more than 2 million people across Denver, Arapahoe and Douglas counties).

Tracking and delivering

Peterson’s formal community relations work so far has focused on reaching out to understand what community benefit programs UCH already has in place, and he’s implementing a system pioneered at UCHealth Northern Colorado to track and help quantify – both in terms of people helped and dollar value – existing and emerging programs. The results will play a key role in understanding where the gaps are as the hospital works to address the major community health needs identified in the recently completed, three-year UCH Community Health Needs Assessment.

The three biggest are improving specialty care access, identifying and mitigating cardiovascular risk factors, and improving mental and behavioral health services. To improve specialty care, the focus will be on enhancing and growing UCH’s e-consult and telehealth capabilities. For cardiovascular risk factors, the emphasis will be on smoking cessation and education. Improving mental and behavioral health services will be about strengthening and expanding relationships with community-based programs and developing a business case for a specialized patient treatment area in the UCH Emergency Department, he says. Peterson presented the plan to the UCH board on Nov. 15.

While UCH has made enormous contributions to the community by providing $500 million in uncompensated care, Peterson’s hope is to improve the hospital’s presence on the ground. Donating money to a soup kitchen is good, he said, but ladling soup on a Saturday shows a different sort of commitment. Ultimately, he believes the most important word in community relations is “presence.” Even UCHealth’s $4.6 billion in overall economic impact, he said, doesn’t mean much “when you talk to people in an elevator.”

“What matters to them is that UCH goes down to the soup kitchen for four hours on a Saturday and dishes out soup,” Peterson said. “That matters to me, and that’s what this is all about.”


About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.