GROWTH amidst the gloom

Closings and cutbacks.

If one had to sum up the ongoing economic downturn in two words, these would be it.

In almost every sector, from retail to construction to finance, businesses throughout Southwest Washington are retrenching and regrouping for an economic recovery that hasn't quite arrived yet.

All except the region's healthcare providers, it seems.

Though Clark County's population growth is pegged at only 1.65 percent according to state estimates, two major Southwest Washington healthcare organizations are expanding their facilities by leaps and bounds – with a third looking to dramatically increase its presence in the region.

 "We've been running at 90 percent capacity since last year," said Jonathan Avery, chief administrative officer at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center. "We needed the space badly."

Southwest Washington Medical Center also has been experiencing capacity issues, particularly in the area of critical-care and progressive-care patients – those who aren't critical any longer, but need a little extra care and monitoring.

"We've been seeing a higher acuity level of patients, and a higher volume of trauma cases," said Ken Cole, SWMC's manager of public affairs and communications.

SWMC has one of only three dedicated trauma centers in the Portland-metro area. According to Cole, lack of space in the critical and progressive care units has backed up SWMC's emergency room, causing patients to be diverted to other hospitals.

But with the recent addition of 80 beds at SWMC and 64 beds at nearby Legacy Salmon Creek, Cole says these problems are much less likely to occur.

SWMC expands capacity by 30 percent

Three new critical care units opened at SWMC Sept. 21. Housed in the hospital's Firstenburg Tower, the new units will provide care for the most critical of patients, including those recovering from heart surgery or other serious health problems.

The tower includes a 24-bed Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit, a 24-bed Intensive Care Unit and a 32-bed Progressive Care Unit, featuring state-of-the-art equipment and design and private rooms with accommodations for family members.

And in much-needed good news for unemployed Washingtonians, SWMC plans to hire a total of 30 additional nurses for the new units, along with support staff, according to Cole.

The $43.7 million expansion project increases SWMC's bed volume by about 30 percent. Originally, said Cole, the plan was to build out one floor at a time. But after crunching the numbers, it made more sense to do all three floors at once.

"It was a huge cost savings," Cole said. "We saved about $3 million."

…and Legacy Salmon Creek follows suit                  

Only two weeks after SWMC opened Firstenburg Tower, Legacy Salmon Creek's new specialty units came on line as part of its sixth-floor expansion project.

The new facility includes a 16-bed Total Joint Center, a 16-bed Neurosciences Center, a 16-bed progressive-care unit and a 16-bed surgical specialties unit.

According to Legacy's Avery, one of the benefits of the expansion project is in the acquisition of a specialized care area tailored to patients. For example, the Total Joint Center – the first of its kind in the Vancouver-Portland area – includes a gym that allows patients to receive physical therapy immediately after surgery instead of having to wait until they are discharged from the hospital.

Legacy already hired about 20 additional nurses for the new units. The hospital plans to add another 20 to 30 registered nurses, nursing assistants and other support personnel by next spring, according to Avery.

At a cost of $20 million, the expansion project added 52,684 square feet to the Legacy Salmon Creek facility and increased their bed capacity by over 40 percent.

Like SWMC, Legacy planned to grow more slowly, with the sixth-floor expansion project originally expected to be complete in 2012. But community need and growth caused Legacy to move ahead quicker than expected, according to Avery.

"Fast growth and growing pains are good problems to have," he said.

A familiar healthcare brand increases its presence

With the recent opening of a primary-care clinic on East Mill Plain Boulevard and with last year's purchase of 1.4 acres in Fishers Landing for the construction of another facility, Providence Health & Services is well along it in its Clark County expansion efforts.

"We believe Clark County is underserved in primary care services," said Craig Wright, chief executive for Providence's Physician's Division.

Providence's Mill Plain clinic opened about six months ago with three primary care physicians on staff. 450 to 500 patients utilize the facility.

"We've seen remarkable growth," Wright said. "And there's no evidence that it's going to slow down."

The planned 15,000 square-foot Fishers Landing facility has the potential to serve up to 1,350 patients and will provide physical therapy and x-ray services.

Providence owned the Mill Plain building for several years before making the decision to occupy the clinic this year. "It's not unusual for us to buy and hold property," said Gary Walker, director of public affairs for Providence in Oregon.

For example, Providence purchased the 1.4-acre Fishers Landing property for $1.6 million in 2008. In contrast to the Mill Plain clinic, which was basically a renovation/remodel project, Providence will build a 15,000 square-foot clinic from the ground up on this piece of land.

"We're very excited about Clark County and our strategy for serving this community," said Walker.

When asked about speculation of a possible partnership or merger with SWMC, Walker told the VBJ that there was no such plan. However, he did not rule out any future deals. "We are always talking to people about opportunities for … expansion," he said.

At SWMC, Cole says that the two hospitals already work in partnership to provide the best care possible at the least cost. For example, SWMC and Providence have a group purchasing relationship allowing both hospitals to negotiate lower rates on supplies.

Cole also dismissed the merger speculation.

"At our employee forums, people ask, ‘are we merging?'" Cole said. "The Board of Directors has been consistent in the past by answering that a merger is not in the best interest of the community – that we should stay independent."