Room to heal: New building for cancer center, second cath lab among HHSC improvement projects

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Dan Brinkman talks about the ongoing projects at Hilo Medical Center on Thursday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Contractors work on the exterior of the new oncology building that will expand the East Hawaii Cancer Center at 1285 Waianuenue on Thursday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Carl Juneau, left, and Jeanean Dillard talk about the need for the new cardiology suite at Hilo Medical Center on Thursday.

The halls of the East Hawaii Cancer Center were crowded Thursday afternoon, bustling with patients and staff.

Walking down the narrow hallways, it’s easy to see why a bigger space is needed — the cancer center has outgrown its existing facility.

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Formerly known as the Hawaii Pacific Oncology Center, the cancer center, which was built in the 1990s, is located in what is now known as the East Hawaii Health Clinic at 1285 Waianuenue Ave.

Adjacent to the existing clinic and across the street from Hilo Medical Center, work is well underway on a new two-story, nearly 20,000-square-foot building that will provide space not only for expanded oncology care, but primary care and other specialty services.

The expansion should be complete by July 2022.

Sanoe Kauhane, assistant administrator of outpatient clinics, said the clinic will still use part of the existing facility and will build exam rooms where patients currently undergo chemotherapy treatment. The radiation treatment area will remain the same, save for some minor renovations.

The new facility, however, will allow the center to grow from 12 chemotherapy treatment bays up to 20.

“The new expansion will create a very tranquil environment where patients can heal in a better environment,” she said.

According to Kauhane, there was one medical oncologist and one nurse practitioner when the cancer center was built, but now there are two people in each role.

“We’d like to keep expanding our provider group because … we have so much clientele going off island for treatment where we really could treat them here within our own community if we have the space to do so.”

The expansion is just one of several capital improvement projects underway in the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation’s East Hawaii Region, which includes HMC.

Hilo Medical Center is renovating existing space within the hospital to create a second catheterization lab.

In recent years, HMC has worked to expand cardiac care in East Hawaii, establishing a new catheterization lab and bringing several interventional cardiologists onto its staff.

Prior to the 2019 arrival of interventional cardiologist Dr. Carl Juneau, HMC could administer clot-busting medications and perform diagnostic catheterizations to determine if a patient needed to be transported off-island, usually to Oahu.

The hospital can now perform interventional catheterizations to stop a heart attack in progress and insert stents to maintain blood flow.

Jeanean Dillard, director of interventional images, said the second lab is important to ensure the hospital can serve all of its patients and that there’s a “redundancy in the system,” should one of the rooms become unavailable.

“But we’ll be able to serve more patients … and be able to increase our volume and increase the patient load that’s coming through now,” she said.

“Part of our work to increase the number of services we have here in the community require more infrastructure,” said Dan Brinkman, East Hawaii Regional CEO, HHSC. “So if you think about it, you know you can have a cardiology program, and then you also can add interventional radiologists and vascular surgeons, but they need to have a facility to work in.”

According to Brinkman, construction on the second cath lab began just over two months ago and is expected to be finished January or February.

Both labs will have similar capabilities and will be used by HMC’s cardiologists, vascular surgeon and interventional radiologists, he said.

Brinkman said HMC started planning for the second lab when it started its cardiology program.

“You always have to stay a little bit ahead, but you don’t want to get too far ahead where you have expensive space and infrastructure sitting around and nobody using it. Then that’s a waste of dollars too,” he explained. “I guess (we’re) trying to get the ‘Goldilocks spot’ where you have enough infrastructure, enough providers and not too much.”

Brinkman said the new lab fits in with the hospital’s strategic plan to ensure the community has the same services available here that could be found in rural mainland communities of the same size.

Brinkman said with any project in Hawaii, there’s a long lead time.

“You can get the money, but the process of actually getting them done takes a whole long time,” he said. “… We’re certainly glad to see the projects move along.”

Both projects currently are on budget and on time.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not caused any hiccups with the ongoing CIP work.

Although the pandemic has disrupted supply chains and pushed up the cost of materials, Brinkman said he doesn’t expect too much impact on current projects because the bids have already been awarded and prices are set for a certain amount of time.

“The projects we have working now, we feel comfortable about them, but future projects certainly will be more expensive, just like they are for everyone else.”

According to Brinkman, HMC received two capital improvement project allocations from the state totaling $5 million for the new cath lab.

Meanwhile, the state allocated $8 million in two installments for the oncology expansion. HMC also will borrow up to an additional $8 million for that project.

Brinkman said the cost of that expansion is expected to total $15 million.

Other projects looming

A budget approved in April by lawmakers, currently under consideration by Gov. David Ige, includes an additional $20 million in capital improvement funds for an expansion of HMC’s intensive care unit.

According to Brinkman, the hospital will put an additional $10 million in operational funds toward the project.

Plans for this expansion, which will add new space onto the existing hospital above the parking lot, are expected to be ready for bid by August, he said. The number of ICU beds will increase from 11 to 18.

Brinkman said the project is funded in part through federal coronavirus relief funds that can be used for improvements to health care facilities.

“During COVID, our ICU was full, and it was pretty obvious we really didn’t have a lot of extra capacity,” he said. “So with the hospital’s growth in services, along with (the fact) that you need some reserve capacity, it’s pretty clear we needed a larger ICU.”

Brinkman said HMC also is doing a number of other infrastructure, repair and renovation projects, “just to keep the building useful and functional for the next 30 years.”

Among those projects, the hospital is redoing its lobby and entrance, and eventually will have a retail pharmacy available on the first floor to serve its clinics, the emergency room and patients in the hospital.

HMC also will renovate its admitting area.

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“Hopefully, the whole layout will work much better for our patients,” Brinkman said. “Actually, by the time we do the lobby, when it’s completed, our entire first floor will have been renovated and converted to … patient care or clinic space.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.