The state's Public Health Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Lahey Hospital & Medical Center's plans to expand its emergency department in Burlington, clearing the way for the $76 million project to move forward.
The expansion, which will include a rooftop helipad and space to build a future radiation oncology center, is needed to meet growing patient demand, hospital officials said.
The department was designed in the late 1970s to treat 15,000 to 17,000 patients a year. But in 2013, Lahey logged more than 39,000 emergency room visits. By 2021, the Burlington hospital expects to see more than 45,000 patients there.
"The emergency department at Lahey is extremely crowded," Dr. Howard Grant, the president and chief executive of the hospital, told the council. "We are accepting all transports that are referred to us."
Under state law, hospitals must show that their planned expansions are economically justified and there is a need for the services in neighboring communities. In a process known as "determination of need," the 14-member council must review and approve expansion proposals.
Like many emergency rooms, Lahey gets a lot of elderly patients, and heart attack sufferers. With the hospital sitting next to Interstate 95, Lahey's emergency department also treats many patients injured in car crashes.
Patients sometimes have to lie in stretchers in the hallways because there isn't enough space in the treatment rooms, said Dr. Malcolm Creighton, chairman of the emergency department.
"We have to be creative in using spaces in the hallway, and having patients wait in chairs outside rooms," Creighton said. "We try to keep every patient safe by keeping them in an observed area. We try to get their care started as quickly as possible."
Lahey also is seeing growth in emergency room visits partly because it gets more referrals from three other hospitals within the network of its parent company, Lahey Health, which is reorganizing how it delivers health services. The Lahey system is working to shift routine care to community hospitals in Gloucester and Beverly and move the sickest patients to Burlington. Lahey also is planning to acquire Winchester Hospital.
Construction of the new emergency department is expected to begin in spring 2015 — if the hospital stays on pace with fund-raising efforts — and continue for about two years. By the end of March, Lahey had raised about $29 million in cash and pledges, just over one-third of the expansion's price tag.
Lahey's current emergency department is about 12,000 square feet and has 22 treatment bays, including two trauma rooms. Plans call for expanding the department to 45,000 square feet with 36 treatment bays, including four trauma rooms.
The new facility also will include specially outfitted behavioral health rooms, radiology rooms, and two CT scanners. It is designed to support 52,000 annual patient visits. It will include individual patient rooms, allowing for more privacy.
"Our goal is to make sure that we enhance comfort for the patients," Grant said.