When it comes to medical care for kids, El Paso has come a long way in a few years.

That’s because the city’s two pediatric hospitals, El Paso Children’s and Providence Children’s Hospitals, have both stepped up their game in the past year.

The results are improved local care with fewer parents having to take their children to MD Anderson in Houston or elsewhere for specialized treatment of serious and life-threatening conditions.

While many areas of treatment have opened up in El Paso, transplants still require travel to bigger hospitals in bigger markets. But sophisticated care before and after those surgeries can now be handled in El Paso.

For El Paso Children’s, which opened in 2012, new and ambitious improvements in advanced services became possible after the hospital emerged from bankruptcy last May – free of $58 million in debt to the county’s University Medical Center.

The hospital kept its status as a private nonprofit along with its own board and CEO but gave up some of its autonomy under a new partnership with UMC.

El Paso Children’s is also a teaching hospital for Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.

“The biggest improvement over the last two years or so has been, by and large, the majority of kids that need some specialty pediatrics do not have to leave our community,” said Mark Amox, El Paso Children’s CEO since October 2016.

“Today, the issues and the problems that kids have to leave our community for are very specific. These areas are cardiovascular surgery and any sort of transplant,” he said.

Keeping more children in El Paso for treatment was the promise made in 2007 when El Paso County successfully went to voters with a $120-million bond proposition to add a 122-bed children’s wing at UMC.

“We’ve almost quadrupled the number of specialties since we’ve been in existence,” Amox said. “We didn’t have a large number to begin with, so it doesn’t necessarily sound impressive. But it is a meaningful change.

“The things you’re going to see us do and those things that we are doing are specialties like cranial-facial surgery programs, neurosurgery programs and epilepsy, neurology and those things that are not stand-alone subspecialties.”

He said El Paso Children’s goal is to add significant new programs to solve medical problems around specialties that don’t have solutions in El Paso yet. They will do so with services from Texas Tech and community specialists.

The best example, he said, is the Children’s cranial-facial program led by Dr. David Yates, who’s part of El Paso's West Texas Maxillofacial Surgery that works with other specialists in radiology, neurosurgery and neurology to repair devastating facial deformations.

The results for those children are life changing.

“He is uniquely qualified and really the only expert in this part of the county that does this work,” Amox said. “He’s very busy and has quite a large pent-up demand for the kind of work he does.”

Next, he said, is genetics. El Paso Children’s has two geneticists with Texas Tech University Health Science Center School of Medicine in Lubbock working closely with the hospital’s cancer program.

“The future of our hospital and the future of pediatrics is inextricably linked to genetics and all of its variations in ways we can’t even imagine at this point,” Amox said.

Comparing the services at El Paso Children’s and Providence Children’s, Amox said there is significant overlap with a few areas where El Paso Children’s has services Providence Children’s does not.

But Providence Children’s is moving fast and has resources El Paso Children’s cannot match.

With five hospitals in El Paso, The Hospitals of Providence is part of Tenet’s highly profitable 74-hospital network, the third largest in the U.S. El Paso Children’s reach is El Paso County and government programs such as Medicaid.

Sally Hurt-Deitch, who moved up in the organization to become the market CEO of The Hospitals of Providence in 2015, said she thought then it was time to recommit to Providence Children’s.

“In view of everything Providence had done,” she said, “it really came down to a fundamental question: Are we committed to providing care and services to children or not?”

After research and discussion, she said, they decided Providence Children’s needed its own board of directors to propose and guide the changes.

“We started going through demographics and looking at the prevalence of certain disease pockets in our community,” she said. “If you look at the most prevalent needs, No. 1 is behavioral health.

“No. 2 is pulmonary diseases, everything from asthma to pneumonia and any kind of respiratory illnesses children may have.”

To address those areas, Providence moved its Pediatric Outpatient Rehabilitation Services Clinic from its old location on Curie Drive to the Young Building next door to Providence Memorial on North Oregon.

Renamed The Hospitals of Providence Children’s Specialty Clinic, it’s up and running even as the remodeling continues, providing occupational, physical and speech therapy clinics with direct access to specialists.

Providence Children’s also reached out to other children’s hospitals for proposals on establishing additional specialized clinics.

Hurt-Deitch said they bid out the contract to run Providence Children’s high-risk newborn clinic for babies after they leave the neonatal intensive care unit. They hired Pediatrix, a national company based in Dallas.

Managing the cost was a big factor, she said, because the majority of children will receive treatment paid for with government funding, mostly Medicaid.

“It made perfect sense to us to partner with different people versus saying we’re going to recruit a bunch of physicians into El Paso when we’re not sure what the exact need is going to be,” she said. “So, let us build into it and see how much time we’re going to need these physicians.”

For instance, research showed about 60 children a year were getting spinal surgery – not enough for either hospital to hire a pediatric surgeon.

“But if we can partner with somebody and those physicians can come to El Paso for appointments and surgeries, we can provide the service here,” she said. “That’s what started the clinic, and it’s just exploding with the number of specialties and services being offered.”

Another big need in El Paso is nutritional support. The outpatient clinic offers pediatric nutritional counseling and services to help parents manage diseases such as their children’s diabetes and obesity.

“We have a pediatric dietician who holds a clinic every week day, and we’ll probably start offering it on weekends because the demand has been incredible,” Hurt-Deitch said.

The outpatient clinic will also serve children with behavioral health needs, including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

“The community has been in dire need of that for a very long time,” she said.

She estimated that $150 million has been spent on upgrades at Providence’s Sierra Campus and Providence Memorial, including the children’s hospital, plus an additional $5 million on the outpatient clinic and the new pediatric imaging center.

Still to come is the expansion of tele-medical services that will link the pediatric emergency room staffed by board-certified surgeons with Providence’s other hospital emergency rooms.

“If a child comes in at one of our other ERs, the physician at Providence East can get on by telemedicine with the pediatric doctor at Providence Children’s,” Hurt-Deitch said. “Then they can evaluate the patient together.”

Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.