UC San Diego Health System arrives with purposeful quiet

If you're looking for a sign of the UC San Diego Health System Nevada Cancer Institute in Las Vegas, you'll have about as much luck as you would have looking for a sign of Bigfoot.

Yes, more than three months after the University of California, San Diego Health System purchased the clinical operations and flagship building of the bankrupt Nevada Cancer Institute in Summerlin, there's no visible sign of the changing of the guard, not even in the main lobby.

Although there's been a short underwriting ad for public radio that lets listeners know UC San Diego is affiliated with the institute, no one can accuse the new CEO, Mickey Goldman, of advancing a perception that the storied California institution is rushing in to save the day when it comes to medical care in Southern Nevada.

And that's just the way the 57-year-old Michigan native, whose wife is a breast cancer survivor, wants it.

"UCSD is not coming into town as a heavy-handed 800-pound gorilla," he said the other day. "We want to be supportive and collaborative to the medical community. When we're ready, you'll see more from us."

As Goldman talked in his office, it was clear he was trying to learn from history, so he wouldn't be doomed to repeat it.

"In the previous organization, they didn't reach out to the medical community as effectively as they could have," he said.

Intended or unintended, he said, local physicians came to believe the institute's hierarchy didn't think much of their expertise. As a result, they largely referred patients elsewhere - Comprehensive Cancer Centers treats 60 percent of valley cancer patients - for oncology, radiation, imaging, and psychological and social services.

Without plentiful referrals - the lifeblood of specialized medical centers - serious financial problems arise.

Local doctors have told me they were "bad-mouthed" by institute staff. But institute co-founder Heather Murren - while conceding she may not have worked on local partnerships as "broadly and assiduously" as possible - said local doctors took observations on mortality statistics and people leaving the state for care too personally.

"There are many fine doctors in this area," said Goldman, who noted he has been quietly visiting with valley doctors, making the case for why the institute would be a good referral partner.

What would have dramatically helped market the UC San Diego Health System Nevada Cancer Institute to both doctors and patients in Nevada is a direct tie to UC San Diego's Moores Cancer Center, one of only 40 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. But because there is no hospital or surgical or basic research component attached to the local institute, it can't come under the Moores' umbrella, Goldman said.

Still, Goldman pointed out, because of the Nevada institute's affiliation with the UC San Diego Health System, patients can benefit from "cutting-edge research" at Moores. Consultations and clinical drug trials are readily available.

The institute, which still treats patients at UMC, now serves 80 to 100 patients a day with a 100-member staff that includes six doctors. Goldman says it could see five times as many patients and is hiring more staff.

Goldman even sounds as though he wants to bury the hatchet with Comprehensive Cancer Centers, whose executives were often at odds with Heather Murren's view of medical care in Las Vegas. Comprehensive always touts its affiliation with UCLA, which has a cancer center with the same reputation as Moores.

"We have to find out how not to step on each other's toes," he said.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.