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U. Health Center expanding

The University of Utah Health Sciences Center, perched east of the university, is starting to resemble a campus in and of itself. And a large, domino-effect series of expansions will add to that.

Within the next few years, the University Hospital will expand with a new 110,000-square-foot building just north of the existing hospital, separate but connected. That will mean more operating rooms, a bigger emergency room and other services.

A new cancer hospital will contain 40 beds — and free up 40 beds in the existing hospital.

The Moran Eye Center will double its size with a 170,000-square-foot building that includes much better space for research, clinics and surgery. The building it leaves behind will be available for other hospital-run programs.

The mega-expansion is coming together just as University Hospital leaves behind a year that was fiscally painful, punctuated by clinic closures and other belt-tightening measures. But if it seems like an odd time to be expanding in multiple directions, "it actually makes a lot of sense," according to Dale Lundergan, associate administrator at University Hospital. And the hospital's future well-being may depend on the upcoming projects.

Lundergan and Fred Esplin, vice president of University Relations, said that at the same time the hospital was losing money in some areas, it was not bringing in money it could have gained because it had to turn away patients who needed high-demand services.

"Health care is not the funnest industry right now," said Lundergan. "There are ongoing challenges. As for what the health sciences will look like in the future, I think the belief is that we should concentrate on core businesses where we excel. We believe examples would be cancer, trauma and specialty surgical areas. In doing so, the need to provide adequate facilities is vital to our future. In expanding these services, we believe we build our financial future."

The health sciences center is small compared to many urban facilities, Lundergan said, with a bed count of just 225. This will be the hospital's first expansion since the 450,000-square-foot building was erected in 1981. It's unlikely, however, to be the last, according to Esplin. And even now, officials are wrestling with what that will mean. The mountains block expansion to the east. "In the long term, what do you do beyond this?" he asked. "Do you encroach further on the golf course or into Research Park? Do you start building up? We're thinking about that now."

So many services and schedules are interconnected that planning the already-approved projects has taken mammoth collaboration, according to Esplin.

Expanding certain areas of the hospital in no way means shrinking others, Lundergan said. No one is losing facilities. But certain areas are gaining.

The first change will be construction of the hospital expansion, including moving the AirMed helipads further north. The new building will house a larger emergency room and the surgical intensive care unit. In the existing building, there are 12 ICU beds. The expansion will bring the number to 26.

The area that now houses the intensive care unit and the operating room area will be remodeled to add six new operating rooms, for a total of 18, Lundergan said.

The radiology department and possibly others will expand into the area that housed the emergency room.

Architects have already been chosen for the hospital expansion, and officials hope to break ground in April, with a target completion by fall 2002. The operating rooms should be finished by the following spring. The whole project is expected to cost $42 million.

Construction on the cancer hospital will come after that and will take about 2 1/2 years. The new facility, which is estimated to cost $100 million, will include about 40 inpatient beds and four or five operating rooms, as well as some ICU capacity.

Lundergan cites that as an example of the complementary nature of the buildings. Because the cancer hospital will have beds, freeing up other beds in University Hospital, the expansion didn't have to include more inpatient beds and could focus on creating other needed space.

The state Board of Regents and the Legislature have already given approval for construction of the 200,000-plus-square-foot cancer hospital, which is planned for this fall. Sixty percent of the funding will come from the foundation Jon and Karen Huntsman created when they established the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and the other 40 percent will be made up from tobacco settlement money, existing health sciences funds and a $3 million federal appropriation, Esplin said.

"It gives a message to the community that there's a cancer research hospital — the only one in the region," said Dr. Joseph Simone, senior clinical director at the institute. "Not only will it provide first-rate cancer care, but (the hospital and institute together) will be committed to developing new and better treatments and diagnostic tests for cancer."

The cancer hospital will be directly north of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and the two facilities will collaborate closely, but operation will be under the direction of University Hospital administration, Lundergan said.

Moran II, as University officials are calling the future Moran Eye Center, will be located south of Primary Children's Medical Center and west of the University Hospital, displacing some university parking.

The increased space is sorely needed for a number of reasons, according to Moran spokesman Chris Nelson. "First, in the last two years they've recruited about nine new researchers as part of reaching the goal to make it an international eye center. And they need a place to work. If we can consolidate the researchers, hopefully they will collaborate closely."

Since the center opened in 1993, the number of patient visits and surgeries have doubled — a phenomenal rate of growth no one anticipated, Nelson said.

The predicted cost for the building is $36 million, and the money will come from private funding, with the state picking up the operating and maintenance costs — something legislators already agreed to do.

The plan is to start building right after the 2002 Olympics, although "they're being careful not to give themselves an artificial deadline," Nelson said.

When Moran II opens, the original eye center building will be available for other uses, Lundergan said, which could mean an outpatient operating room area, more research facilities, physician's offices or something not yet planned.

"As we master plan this, we have accounted for the demand. Each works with the others for the future and we're not duplicating or overbuilding," Lundergan said. "This is good for not only us, but for the community. And we're not giving up anything else to get this."


E-mail: lois@desnews.com