Ten years ago, Jennifer Flanagan was diagnosed with cancer. The Marblehead resident, then 55, lived an hour from Boston’s renowned treatment facilities, and she was overwhelmed by the prospect of daily trips to the city.
So Flanagan turned to the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center in Peabody (now located in Danvers), a partnership between North Shore Medical Center’s Salem Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. She was able to split her treatment time, receiving life-saving treatments close to home and traveling to Boston for internal radiation.
Today, Flanagan is cancer-free, and she credits her survival to the doctors of North Shore Medical Center (NSMC) and Mass General.
“My experience was very personal, very caring,” says Flanagan, “and the communication with Mass General in Boston, which had the potential to be challenging, was excellent.”
Last fall, NSMC broke ground on a $200 million expansion of its 100-year-old Salem Hospital campus. Hospital officials say the move will improve specialized care in the region, providing expanded access to treatment like the kind Flanagan received a decade ago.
The three-and-a-half-year project will feature a new 64,000-square-foot emergency department with 55 private patient bays, including three trauma bays and 10 observation bays. The ER will also offer exclusive pediatric care space and designated treatment areas for mental health patients.
The expansion will add a three-story building to Salem Hospital, bringing the total number of medical and surgical beds to 203, with room for additional beds as the need arises. The plan also targets inpatient behavioral health, boosting the number of psychiatric beds for children, adults, and seniors from 66 to 90.
“NSMC is one of the most valuable resources on the entire North Shore,” says Robert Norton, recently retired president of NSMC, which is a member of Partners HealthCare. “This (expansion) will cement that role well into the future.”
The project, however, consolidates services from two campuses to one, moving inpatient care now offered at NSMC’s Union Hospital in Lynn to the expanded Salem facility. The consolidation will also help stem NSMC?s financial challenges–the organization lost over $30 million last year.
Hospital officials blame the shortfall on rising healthcare costs, low reimbursement rates from federal Medicare and Medicaid, and the inefficiencies of operating two full-service hospitals within six miles of each other. The consolidation is forecast to save $10-$15 million a year.
Still, Norton acknowledges that the loss of inpatient care in Lynn has some residents there concerned.
“We’ve spent 100 years in healthcare trying to help people understand that their community hospital is a lifesaving resource,” he says, “so we understand that it’s hard for people.”
He notes that job loss from the transition will be minimal and should fall within typical attrition rates. And to ensure all residents have continued access to care, NSMC is expanding outpatient services in Lynn. That means more primary care physicians, more local emergency services, and ongoing support through grants to the Lynn Community Health Center and other community organizations. Along with the expansion at Salem Hospital, NSMC hopes the move will improve care and access across the region.
That vision—providing quality healthcare to communities outside of Boston—is part of a long tradition on the North Shore, one that began with the opening of Salem Hospital in 1874. That’s when local merchant John Bertram donated $25,000 and a mansion on Charter Street in which to build the hospital. Over the next 40 years, the facility grew to encompass eight buildings, including a maternity ward and training wing for nurses.
In 1917, Salem Hospital moved to its current location on Highland Avenue. The institution reorganized as North Shore Medical Center in 1991, acquiring Union Hospital a few years later. When NSMC became a member of Partners HealthCare in 1996, the organization forged a vital partnership with Mass General, providing local residents with access to cutting-edge treatments and renowned physicians.
Salem Hospital’s latest evolution comes amid a changing and uncertain healthcare landscape. Federal and state budget cuts have made inpatient care a challenge, especially for the Commonwealth’s poor and mentally ill.
According to a Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation, decades of state cuts have meant a dearth of inpatient psychiatric beds, leaving thousands of mentally ill residents with nowhere to go. In 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health reported that the number of inpatient beds in the state dropped to an all-time low of 671.
The bed shortage means that psychiatric units are under pressure to quickly discharge patients and create more space. It also means that mental health patients can find themselves on hospital units inappropriate for their needs: on medical or pediatric floors. Others wait in the emergency room, sometimes for days, until a bed becomes available.
“It’s a huge barrier to treatment because patients get frustrated and may not receive the care they need.” says Dr. Jefferson Prince, NSMC’s vice chair of psychiatry and director of child psychiatry.
Prince says that the addition of two dozen inpatient behavioral health beds, along with dedicated emergency room facilities for behavioral health and pediatric care, will mitigate the cycle of crises that plague mental health patients and their families.
But it’s not only the mentally ill who stand to benefit from the $200 million expansion. Annmarie Chase is nurse director of NSMC’s emergency department and has worked in nursing for 19 years, including five years at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“We always have the ability to treat people (in the ER),” says Chase, “but it’s a matter of how quickly based on a limited number of beds we can do so.”
Chase says the new emergency department will provide ample space, faster access to care, and improved patient privacy. More broadly, the hospital expansion will continue a longstanding tradition of advancing community healthcare on the North Shore, something Prince, Chase, and hospital officials see as a major win for local residents.
“This development will make Salem and the North Shore a community leader in the Commonwealth for providing top-notch treatment,” adds Prince.