Covenant Health today announced plans for a $115 million expansion and modernization of Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center that includes new critical care beds and emergency department rooms.
The expansion is part of a long-term master facility plan that has been accelerated by the changes in the market. Covenant Health leaders say that changes in Knoxville’s health care market, especially downtown, have contributed to increased patient demand.
“We are a nonprofit health system with a mission to improve the lives of those we serve through better health,” Covenant Health CEO Jim VanderSteeg said. “The board and management of Covenant Health feel strongly that we must keep our covenant and meet the rapidly increasing health care needs of the community through the expansion at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.”
Covenant Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Browne said these upgrades are needed, in part, because of a recent uptick in emergency-room traffic.
“We’ve seen that increased demand already in our emergency department and we believe that that will continue to increase,” Dr. Browne said, “but also in the health care market, patients are sicker today than they used to be and the patients that we see need a higher level of service, a higher level technology, a higher level of care and acuity, and expanding our critical services will certainly allow us to meet those needs.”
Covenant Health officials say that, as a major referral center for hospitals across the region – and the primary health care option in the downtown area – Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center is at the center of the increased demand for services. Demand in the critical care units exceeds current bed supply most of the time.
“The situation becomes very real to family members who must wait longer periods of time for their loved ones to be transferred from the emergency department or critical care to a patient room”, VanderSteeg said.
Dr. Browne said there is an explanation for the greater patient volumes.
“The increase is primarily because of the decrease in services at Physicians Regional Medical Center,” Dr. Browne said, “and because patients who come to the hospital tend to have more serious conditions or are sicker overall than in years past.”
Russell R. Mariott, vice president of marketing and development for Tennova Healthcare, said the company does not have any plans to limit emergency or critical care services at Physician’s Regional.
“There are no plans to discontinue or reduce emergency services at Physicians Regional Medical Center for the foreseeable future,” Mariott said in a statement. “The demand for these services, as well as critical care services, has remained relatively consistent. In addition, there have been no changes in capacity related to critical care at Physicians Regional.”
Susan Wyatt, spokesperson for UT Medical Center, said they have not experienced any significant increase in emergency-room traffic but have seen an uptick in neurocritical care. Wyatt said this is because as the patient population ages, they face an increased risk of stroke.
Plans call for the expansion of the emergency department and the addition of new critical care and intermediate care beds to start as soon as possible and take place over the next 12 to 24 months. The emergency department will see a 67 percent increase in the number of rooms to 45.
In addition to new beds, the expansion of the 100-year-old downtown hospital will mean easier access to the facility and improved parking.
“The expansion at the Fort Sanders campus is necessary for us to continue providing excellent medical care and to meet the ever-increasing demand for services,” said Keith Altshuler, Covenant Health’s CAO at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center. “It will have a positive impact on the region’s health. The investment in Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center is an investment in Knoxville and the East Tennessee region.”
To meet the higher patient demand, the project could also come with a new parking garage, an extension of the existing Highland Avenue parking garage, something that has to first be approved by the Knoxville City Council through a rezoning request.
“Covenant representatives have been in to talk with the Mayor and her staff about this request, and they have also reached out to Council members and neighborhood representatives,” Eric Vreeland, Deputy Director of Communications for the City of Knoxville, said in a statement. “We advised them of the public process for requesting a change in the NC-1 overlay boundary, which they are pursuing. There will be opportunity for public input in that process before City’s Council’s review and decision.”
Covenant Health is the largest employer in the region with more than 10,000 employees. Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center is the leading acute care referral center serving a 23-county area in East Tennessee.
Covenant Health is submitting various facets of the expansion plan to Metropolitan Planning Commission and to Knoxville City Council for approval.
All of these improvements, Dr. Browne said are aimed to address current patient and hospital needs, and take a proactive step in projecting the needs of the future.
“We really believe that this expansion will allow us to better serve the needs of our patients,” Dr. Browne said. “We’re looking at not only our immediate short-term needs of our patients but also the long-term needs going into the future to be able to care for their needs.”