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Health care industrys future looks bright in Northeast Georgia
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When Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s North Patient Tower opens in early 2009, it will mark one of the most dramatic changes in the hospital’s six-decade history.

But in order to make that change happen as scheduled, 2008 must be a year of intense preparation.

One of the biggest challenges will be figuring out how to close down an entire hospital — the medical center’s Lanier Park campus — and move patients, staff and equipment into the North Patient Tower on the main campus.

"It will literally be like moving an army, and will take months of conceptualizing," said Jim Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Northeast Georgia Medical Center and Health System.

People driving down South Enota Avenue have been able to watch the new building take shape throughout 2007, and Gardner said the exterior construction will be finished soon.

"We ‘topped off’ the building (put the roof on) in October," Gardner said.

2008 will be devoted to the complex task of filling 426,000 square feet of floor space in the seven-story building. Hospital construction is highly technical because each patient room must be designed for piped-in oxygen delivery, infection control and other considerations unique to health care.

"2008 will be consumed by bringing the inside of the building to life," Gardner said. "We’re currently putting in air conditioning, water and sewer lines, and starting to build the operating rooms."

Also under way is construction on the Women and Children’s Pavilion, which is scheduled to be completed at about the same time as the North Patient Tower. The new addition, near the former main entrance, will feature four surgical suites, a greatly expanded neonatal intensive care unit and plenty of room for labor and delivery.

"We will have a ‘topping out’ party (for the pavilion) in January," Gardner said.

Because of the two construction projects on the main campus, visitors can expect the shortage of parking space to continue throughout 2008.

"But we’ve gotten phenomenal feedback on our valet service," Gardner said.

Work begins at South Hall site

2008 will also bring the first phase of development to River Place, Northeast Georgia Health System’s 119-acre South Hall campus off Thompson Mill Road in Braselton. Medical Plaza 1, a three-story, 100,000-square-foot office building, is under construction on a 12 acre corner of the property.

Scheduled for completion in September, the plaza will provide a new, expanded home for the Braselton Clinic and will offer space for a number of specialty physicians’ groups that currently don’t have permanent office space in South Hall.

In addition, the building will house an urgent care center that will have capabilities similar to a full-scale emergency room. And eventually it will have a comprehensive imaging center, though Gardner said that aspect of the project will not be finished by September.

The plaza is the precursor to building a complete 100 bed hospital on the site, scheduled to open in 2012.

Amid the frenzy of construction, there are other initiatives at Northeast Georgia Health System that don’t involve bricks and mortar. Gardner said in 2008 the system will begin phasing in an electronic medical records system.

"We have great information technology, but getting all the different systems to talk to each other has been a problem," he said. "Our goal is to have the new system largely in place when the North Patient Tower opens, and some components of it will be ready in 2008."

Also coming soon is a "cancer navigator" program.

"When someone is diagnosed with cancer, there can be a bewildering series of questions," Gardner said. "We are hiring a practitioner whose job is to coordinate patients’ care. This will be the ‘go-to’ person who works with both physicians and patients."

Help wanted: physicians

A key priority for the health system, Gardner said, is recruiting enough doctors to keep up with the growth of the hospital and the area’s population.

"Physician work force development is the No. 1 issue for 2008," Gardner said. "Too many physicians are retiring, and there are not enough new ones in the pipeline."

To address that issue in South Hall, the health system recently named Dr. Jim Jackson, co-founder of the Braselton Clinic, as medical development director for the Braselton area.

"Dr. Jackson is focused on what will be the necessary complement of physicians to support the hospital down there," said Gardner. "Without the right physicians, it’s just a big building."

Health system officials are also keeping an eye on statewide issues that could affect their operations. Gardner said they’re concerned about getting enough funding from Medicaid, getting a state trauma-care plan passed, and possible changes in the certificate-of-need law, which regulates hospital construction projects.

Longstreet Clinic renovates, adds doctors

As the Gainesville hospital grows, so does the rest of the medical community. A number of changes are in the works for the Longstreet Clinic, the area’s largest multispecialty practice.

Longstreet chief executive officer Mimi Collins said the clinic’s cancer center will relocate in the spring, almost doubling its space.

"Currently oncology is on the first floor, with four physicians now working in a space that was originally intended only for two," she said. "They’re going to be moving to the third floor, into about 14,000 square feet of space."

Longstreet will also be renovating the third-floor area where its surgery and imaging services are located.

"This year we went from four to six surgeons, and we will add a seventh in the spring," Collins said. "The imaging renovation should be done by early summer, and eventually we’ll separate the women’s health services, such as mammography and stereotactic breast biopsy, from the other types of imaging."

Longstreet already has the region’s largest pediatric practice, with 12 doctors. Collins said they’re hoping to recruit three more in 2008.

"We’ve also created the position of a pediatric hospitalist, so there’s always a doctor to care for the inpatient pediatric cases," she said.

Longstreet also has the area’s largest obstetrics/gynecology practice, and a doctor from the group has been seeing patients in Buford once a week.

"We’re looking for permanent space for an ob/gyn office in South Hall," Collins said.

Like Gardner, Collins is keeping a wary eye on the legislative landscape.

"We’re watching very closely what’s happening with PeachCare," she said.

The federally funded State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which includes PeachCare, recently got a budget extension to keep the program going in 2008, but its future is uncertain. Longstreet treats more PeachCare patients than any other practice in Gainesville.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, physicians who treat elderly patients, such as the doctors in Longstreet’s internal medicine group, are worried about a proposed 10 percent cut in their reimbursement from Medicare, which had been set to go into effect in January.

"The Medicare fee schedule change was postponed, but only until July," Collins said.

A drastic cut in payments could force some doctors to stop seeing Medicare patients. The change could also have a ripple effect throughout the health care industry, since many private insurance companies base their rates on Medicare’s fee structure.

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