Douglas County emerges as a health care powerhouse

(’76 Contributor) I have often wondered what propels the Douglas County economy and enables it to be the 8th most affluent and highly educated county in the United States. Many believe that the engine of growth was real estate development or big box retailing. Maybe, but a recent project I managed suggests a labor force concentrated in the health care field is the real underlying strength of the local economy. Over the past two months I have been organizing the State of Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agency’s lists of licensed health providers into a computerized data base and it has led to some startling revelations.

The magnitude and velocity of growth in the far south suburban area over the past 30 years boggles the mind. In 1965, a 20–foot wall of water rushed down from the Palmer Divide through both Plum and Cherry creeks and wiped a clean slate through the County all the way to the South Platte River. By 1976, sod farms had replaced cattle grazing and there were all of 4800 telephones listed in a Castle Rock phone book that also included Elbert County. The 1976 death of Gerald Phipps, owner of Highlands Ranch and the place for James Michener’s book Centennial, also set the stage for Mission Viejo, later Shea, to develop a planned community. In reviewing the 1976 phone book you could count all the doctors, dentists and pharmacists in the area on the fingers of both your hands.

Douglas County, according to the latest Census Bureau American Community Survey now has a labor force of 151,000 and a total population of over 270,000. At 14%, the health care workforce is slightly more than 21,000 workers ranging from physicians to therapists . But, the impact on the economy is far greater since thousands of Front Range health care workers live in Douglas County and commute into the urban core. My assessment of the economic impact of health care suggests it has now become the economic engine of Douglas County for the 21st Century. The median household income in Douglas County is over $100,000. In Denver that number is only $44,000 and in rural Costilla County in the San Luis Valley, where settlement first occurred in Colorado median household income is a mere $19, 500.

The building of three major hospitals in the southern suburbs over the past ten years—Littleton, Sky Ridge and Parker Adventist, has come at a time when hospitals in the urban core, such as Children’s, University, and the VA have also pulled up stakes and left for the suburbs. Mercy Medical Center closed and all the remaining hospitals in Denver are left with deteriorating demographic and the need to rebuild their facilities.

From that original baker’s dozen of health care providers back in 1976, Douglas County has grown to where it has now has over 800 physicians and P.A.s, 300 Dentists, 600 pharmacists and nearly 1,000 occupational, physical, massage and respiratory therapists. There may be as many as 5,000 nurses and 3,000 mental health workers living in the area. By the year 2020, I estimate there will be nearly 100,000 health care workers in the suburban corridor ring south and east of the boundaries of the City of Denver. The shift in demographics and the growth of health care as a suburban industry has devastating consequences for Denver as a city. Denver seems to have irreversibly lost health care and the suburbs have gained.


Francis M. Miller is the past vice chairman of the Colorado Health Data Commission and a health economist. In 2011 he will publish a Colorado Health Care Atlas of his findings from this project. You can watch its development on www.healthsmartco-op.com.]

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