As the population grows and baby boomers age, Howard County General Hospital is bracing for an influx of patients, armed with a new, five-level patient pavilion.
Its 90 private rooms, centralized outpatient center and enhanced support services should add up to a "dramatic reduction" in emergency room wait times by next year, president and CEO Victor Broccolino said.
Two departments are already operating in the space and others are moving in this week, but patient rooms won't be ready until early August. Then, the hospital will boast a net increase of 18 beds, while it incrementally converts the rest of its semi-private rooms to private ones.
By July 2010, the $105 million project should be mostly finished and the net gain in beds should jump to 44, Broccolino said. The hospital is celebrating the first phase of the opening Friday and Saturday.
"Patient safety and community expectations were the two main drivers," he said, stressing that private rooms are critical to preventing infections, disturbances and human error such as a patient's medication accidentally being given to a roommate.
"Community expectations" includes physicians who needed more advanced operating rooms, as well as Howard County residents who rallied for shorter ER wait times.
Stuart Kohn, a retired North Laurel resident who has lived in the community for 26 years, said his father-in-law was forced to go to far-away hospitals when the one closest to him ran out of open beds. "I'm a concerned citizen. I believe in quality of life to the fullest," he said.
Kohn started an ER committee in the Howard County Citizens Association in April and testified before the County Council about the issue June 15. He referenced data from the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems that calculated how often Howard County ambulances were diverted to other hospitals because of space issues - a status called "yellow alert."
As of July 1, Howard County General was on yellow alert 41 percent of the time in 2009, said John New, the director of information technology and quality management at the institute. That's a 10 percent increase from last year. Still, New said although that means the hospital tells ambulances not to come, ambulances with Priority 1 patients are exempt from the rule.
"It's directly attributable to not having enough beds," said Broccolino, who expects the yellow-alert status to lower to 15 percent by the beginning of 2010.
Bridget Mugane, the president of the citizens association, said she's not sure the 44 additional beds will have a big enough impact.
"That is likely not to adequately address the ER problem," she said. "We think this could be part of the executive initiative to improve health services in the county."
Mugane and her team want the county to consider health services before development is authorized. Currently, Howard County monitors only the adequacy of roads and schools before signing off on new projects, she said.
So far, the ER committee is focused solely on researching the issue, especially considering the 5,500 new homes planned in Columbia and development around Fort Meade. Barbara Russell, chairwoman of the 10-person ER committee, said once they have sufficient data they will suggest a course of action. And in the meantime, they're not trying to point fingers.
"I've been very grateful that we've had a hospital here and very grateful that we've had an ER," said Russell, a longtime Columbia resident. "My personal intention serving on this committee is not to be a critic but to be someone who tries to help improve the service of the hospital, and it's of major importance to the community."
Although Broccolino went before the County Council to clarify the numbers Kohn quoted, he said he still values everyone's input.
"I'm in this community a lot, and people are not shy about coming up to me and telling me about their experiences, good and bad, so I hope to hear less of the bad once we open the pavilion," he said.
Beyond the ER dispute, Mugane called the overall expansion a "wonderful improvement," even though she hasn't seen the new wing.
The addition features sleep sofas in every room, nurse stations between each pair of rooms and ledge-free bathrooms. The rehabilitation facilities on the first floor feature modern equipment, a walking track and television and sound systems.
All of those features used evidence-based design to improve quality of care - Broccolino's first goal.
"Patient safety is really the big thing," he said. "When you're in any kind of leadership position and you know that what happened with your institution caused either death or disability, that really is discouraging if you care about the patient. And that sometimes haunts you."