A super-sized emergency department at Howard County General Hospital is set to open its doors next week, marking the completion of a piece of a $33.5 million expansion that should wrap up next spring.
Promoted by hospital officials as "bigger and better," the 24,000-square-foot facility is expected to have far-reaching effects on emergency medical care in the fast-growing county.
"We hope that patients and families will have a better overall experience and a quicker stay in a nicer environment," said Victor A. Broccolino, president and chief executive officer of Howard County General Hospital.
A trickle-down benefit of the overhaul will be that county paramedics can more quickly return to service after delivering a patient to the hospital, said Dr. Kevin Seaman, medical director for Howard County Fire and Rescue Services.
At triple the current size, the technology-driven emergency department will have 48 treatment rooms - up from 28 - broken into areas for acute, urgent and pediatric care.
Dr. Mark King, director of emergency medicine at the hospital, said the new sprawl will make for a less-cramped, less-noisy emergency department.
"Everybody was sort of on top of each other," he said. "The patients had to be around the nursing station. ... It just wasn't a good situation."
With more room to spread out, the emergency staff will grow to include 30 percent more physicians and 20 percent more nurses than last year, according to the hospital.
To drive up staffing during a nationwide nurse and primary-care physician shortage, Broccolino said the hospital is making better use of its part-time and on-call employees as well as bringing in agency nurses and continuing intense recruitment efforts.
The emergency department overhaul occurs four years after Johns Hopkins Medicine purchased the debt-ridden hospital, but Broccolino said the hospital knew as early as 1997 that it would need to expand its emergency services.
"The severe overcrowding we see now was not as much of an issue between 1990 and 1997," he said. "At the end of that seven-year period, many of the urgent-care providers in this area began shutting down.
"Since then it has been like an explosion."
A study by the hospital completed in June last year shows how desperate the situation has become: The number of emergency room visits increased almost 31 percent from 1999 to 2001 with pediatric emergency visits up nearly 44 percent in that same period.
Hospital officials expect the number of people using the emergency room to keep growing.
Last year, the latest data available, 56,140 people were evaluated and treated in the hospital's emergency department.
"That really put a strain on a facility built for a patient volume in the upper 20s," King said. The new facility will be able to handle up to 70,000 patients every year, officials estimate.
Despite the growing number of patients, the emergency department renovations will help Howard County emergency workers to more efficiently turn over patients to the hospital, Seaman said.
When paramedics arrive with someone on a stretcher, they must wait until that person can be transferred into a hospital bed before returning to service, Seaman said. He estimated that up to 70 percent of the county's medical emergencies are treated at Howard County General.
"Certainly one of our challenges has been when the emergency department is full, which, it's fair to say, has been more common now than in the past," Seaman said.
Fire and rescue personnel helped plan the emergency department, said Mary Patton, the hospital's director of public relations.
Their influence permeates the department but is probably most evident in the new ambulance bay. The drive-up entrance will be able to accommodate five ambulances instead of "practically none" at the current entrance.
"There are often backups of ambulances double-parked unloading patients," Patton said. "They pretty much had to pull up, drop off the patient and then move the ambulance."
Howard County residents can take their first peek at the new facility at an open house from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Other tours, including one for fire and police employees, one for hospital workers and one for donors, will be held throughout the week.