UCHealth Memorial Hospital prepares physicians

August 8th, 2019
A photo of Alicia Heelan Gladden
Dr. Alicia Heelan Gladden.      Photo by Tom Hutton

When injury ended Alicia Heelan Gladden’s Olympic dream, she thought of a tour she had taken years earlier as a Cheyenne Mountain High School student. Although an intense training schedule precluded participation in many school activities, she had visited Memorial Hospital and learned about different health care careers. Nurse. Respiratory therapist. And one that resonated then, and five years later, Doctor.

Soon, arabesques, axel jumps and bracket turns – challenging moves she’d practiced eight hours daily for more than six years – were replaced by the work of becoming a physician and, specifically, a surgeon.

She left Colorado, completing four years of undergraduate study at a small, East Coast college, earning a master’s degree, and completing four years of medical school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Following nine years of college study, she is now in the final stages of a seven-year surgical and research residency at Memorial Hospital where her career – and her life – began.

Photo of Dr. Alicia Heelan Gladden
Dr. Alicia Heelan Gladden

“I was born at Memorial, and so was my mom,” Heelan Gladden said. “This place is special to me. But I was one of those people who had to leave Colorado to truly appreciate it. I’m reminded of how lucky I am to live here every day.”

Gladden is one of more than 100 residents, physicians completing their postgraduate training at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. Gladden’s general surgery residency program is coordinated through the CU School of Medicine in Aurora.  She is joined by graduates of Parker-based Rocky Vista College of Osteopathic Medicine in addition to trainees from the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Aurora, Peak Vista Community Health Centers in Colorado Springs and students from selected out-of-state medical schools.

With both a local and national physician shortage, people like Gladden are integral to the future of health care in Colorado Springs and throughout the region. UCHealth Memorial Hospital has made it a priority to prepare the next generation of physicians through its residency programs and support of a branch campus of the CU School of Medicine.

Gladden’s days are anything but easy. As a senior surgical resident, she’s at the hospital by 6:30 a.m. She sees patients at the hospital, in clinics and performs surgeries such as hernia repairs and gall bladder removals under the supervision of an attending physician. Her days are long – often too long for a drive to Denver to see her husband Jonathan and two golden retrievers. She crashes at an apartment near the hospital and is known to purchase birthday presents for loved ones at the hospital gift shop.

It’s the kind of focus that led her to be a member of Team USA as an elite pairs skater, and to replace the shine of a medal with the gleaming smiles of appreciative patients and family members.

An eye on the future

A photo of Nick Arlas
Nick Arlas

As part of its 2012 agreement to operate Memorial Hospital, UCHealth provides $3 million annually for operation of the Colorado Springs branch campus of the CU School of Medicine.  The branch operates on a corner of the campus of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs with the goal of providing clinical experiences to third- and fourth-year medical students to supplement their classroom-focused initial two years of medical school.

Nick Arlas completed his third year of medical school at the Colorado Springs branch. His clinical clerkship included surgery, OB/GYN, internal medicine and emergency medicine at Memorial Hospital and pediatrics at a UCHealth-owned practice. He experienced adult primary care and family medicine at two Kaiser Permanente locations. Other students gained experience at Peak Vista Community Health Centers and Evans Army Hospital at Fort Carson.

The California native and non-traditional student – he started medical school at age 30 – will complete his fourth year medical school and more clinical rotations beginning this fall with the goal of deciding what area of medicine in which he will practice.  Arlas already knows what he wants. He plans to get married next year and start training as a family practice physician, preferably in Colorado.

Arlas is among roughly 44 third-and fourth-year CU School of Medicine students who study in Colorado Springs. At Memorial, they are joined by 34 Parker-based Rocky Vista Osteopathic Medicine students. Each will decide if they wish to pursue a specialty such as surgery, oncology or a career in primary care such as pediatrics, internal medicine or family practice.

Demand for physicians outpaces supply

Photo of Joel Yuhas
Joel Yuhas, president and CEO Memorial Hospital.

The demand for physicians continues to grow faster than supply, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Population growth and aging drive the demand. By 2032, the U.S. population under 18 is projected to grow by 3.5% while the population more than 65 is expected to grow by 48%. Because seniors consume health care at a higher rate, the demand for physicians is expected to increase. By 2032, the national demand for physicians will exceed supply by at least 46,000 and possibly as many as 121,000.

Memorial CEO Joel Yuhas and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jose Melendez are well aware of national trends as well as local demand in fast-growing southern Colorado. Today, the Colorado Springs area is nearly 200 primary care physicians deficient to meet demand.

Meeting the demand, creating opportunities

When he began at Memorial Hospital three years ago as chief medical officer, Melendez set a goal of boosting the hospital’s education mission as a way of meeting the demand for physicians. Education is at Melendez’s core. He spent 16 years in leadership positions with the Department of Anethesiology at the CU School of Medicine including serving as its vice chair. He was also senior medical director for perioperative services at University of Colorado Hospital, the academic hub for UCHealth.

Photo of Dr. Jose Melendez
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jose Melendez

“By surrounding ourselves with students and residents, we become better physicians,’’ Melendez said.

While he is bullish on the long-term future of medical education, Melendez is also practical in the short-term including other attractions to the area.

Bringing residents and students to UCHealth Memorial Hospital exposes them to the hospital, one of the best in the state, and to a community that offers amenities that include reasonable housing prices, a strong school system, and recreation opportunities.  Melendez and Yuhas see those factors as winning combinations when recruiting in a highly competitive arena.

Besides, Melendez quickly adds, teaching makes everyone stronger.

“Teaching these young physicians keeps you on your toes,” Melendez said. “There’s no better way to understand something than to teach it to someone else.”