City plans for new hospital in Florence

by News Editor Anna Beahm

The now 6-year process of planning for and building a new hospital in Florence has reached the light at the end of the tunnel.

Florence officials said they plan to break ground on a new hospital by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

“(A decision) has got to be made by later in the year,” said Director of Marketing and Communications for Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital Tom Whetstone. “It depends on when the final plans and finalization can be taken care of.”

Whetstone said there are still several blocks the city must vacate and install additional electrical and sewer lines before construction can begin.

The process started with RegionalCare purchasing Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in 2010, Whetstone said. The new hospital will be where Veterans and Helton drives meet.

ECM was built in 1943, when health care technology was very different from how it is now. At the time, inpatient services were more common than outpatient, Whetstone said. The hospital was originally licensed for 357 beds, but only operates 235-bed capacity. Hospital officials converted some of the semiprivate rooms to private rooms to accommodate more outpatient services.

“For example, when I had back surgery, I had a 3-day stay,” he said. “Many people now have back surgery done, are discharged and at home the same day. We have less need for inpatient and more for outpatient.”

With this in mind, he said the new hospital will have more outpatient than inpatient rooms. The new building’s layout will also make the inpatient stay easier for the patients and doctors.

“The new building is designed for outpatient services to be on first floor for easy access for entrance and exit for the patient,” Whetstone said. “(In ECM), the inpatient rooms are on the ground level, but surgery is on the second floor.”

He said all the same services currently available at ECM will also be available at the new facility along with a few upgrades to the spaces and services.

There will be a larger emergency department with more rooms, larger surgical suites and more up-to-date technology, he said.

“Our rooms will be twice the size of the ones we have now to better accommodate the changing needs of patients,” he said.

Students from UNA’s College of Nursing and Northwest Shoals Community College nursing students perform clinicals at ECM, and Whetstone said those students can still continue their experiential studies in the new space.

Working in an environment with up-to-date technology will greatly benefit the nursing students at UNA, said junior nursing student Taylor Guyton.

“In class, tests and learning (are) important, but I think clinicals are one of the most necessary aspects of nursing school,” she said. “The profession is so hands-on, unpredictable and fast-paced that clinicals better prepare you for the real world career rather than just knowing basic test information.”

Architects are currently in the process of meeting with each department within the hospital and hearing their concerns and suggestions for the new facility, Whetstone said.

“After that, the architects will come back with the drawings,” he said. “They will go through them with leadership teams and see if further adjustments need to be made. We’ll then finalize plans and go through with the big construction.”