Rutland Regional Medical Center held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday to celebrate the completion of a $6 million renovation and expansion of the hospital's emergency department.
Officials say the project was paid for with hospital-generated income and will improve traffic flow, safety, and better serve the needs of mental health patients.
Before the renovations, hospital administrators say roughly a third of the time, Rutland's emergency department was dangerously overcrowded based on national standards.
“We see about 100 [patients] a day,” says Dr. Todd Gregory, medical director of RRMC’s Emergency Department. “Some days during the summer months, which is our busiest time, we’ll see in excess of a 120, which is a very busy day for us.”
Gregory says in the ten years he’s been working in Rutland, the department's caseload has increased by about 2 percent a year.
But what about the Affordable Care Act? Wasn’t that supposed to reduce visits to emergency rooms?
RRMC President Tom Huebner says the law has definitely had a significant impact on the hospital.
“It’s given far more people access to insurance,” says Huebner. “I think in Vermont we’re at about 98 percent of the population getting coverage, which means more people are getting services early on. So we’re seeing significant reductions in bad debt and free care which has allowed us to reduce prices to paying patients.”
Nonetheless, Huebner says visits to RRMC's Emergency Department have not gone down because of the Affordable Care Act.
“But the nature of those visits have changed pretty dramatically," he adds.
"We’re seeing a higher percentage of patients with mental health issues and we’re seeing sicker patients as a group. For instance in 2010, 9 percent of [Emergency Department] admissions got admitted to the hospital. Now, it’s 15 percent,” says Huebner.
Two sets of automatic doors fold open as Gregory walks through the main entrance of the hospital's renovated emergency department.
“This is our new reception area,” he says pointing to a large glass-enclosed booth for check in. “It’s much improved.”
Gregory says a big focus of the 18-month renovation was improving patient flow. The department was expanded by 2,000 square feet, reconfigured and made safer.
“The entry area has two triage rooms so it’s larger and we can get patients processed and can make sure they are not experiencing a life-threatening emergency,” he says. “Plus, this entire area is protected by bulletproof glass and all of these doors are lockable.”
Passing through one of those locked doors, Gregory stands near a new glassed-in control center known as "the bridge."
This part of the emergency department has traditionally been noisy, filled with voices, beeping heart monitors and other loud equipment. That’s something Gregory says administrators worked hard to address with the new layout.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that we’re keeping the noise level low, which is why the glass is here as well as here,” says Gregory, pointing down the wider hallways.
Reducing noise is important, he says, because one third of the department's patients struggle with mental health issues such as severe depression, anxiety or drug and alcohol dependence. Loud noise can exacerbate discomfort and stress for those patients.
“And we can now have the department full of patients, we’re not quite here yet today,” says Gregory. “But the noise level does not change much from what you’re hearing right now, which is much better for patients and families.”
The $6 million construction project created 10 new exam rooms. Five of those are in a special locked unit specifically designed for psychiatric patients, where rooms have windows that allow in natural light.
With a statewide shortage of psychiatric care facilities, emergency departments are increasingly filling that need; Gregory says the five new psychiatric rooms in the emergency department have been full since they opened.