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Growth “critical” for local hospitals

Lakeridge Health

Kevin Empey, the CEO of Lakeridge Health, told city council that the largest issue affecting Oshawa’s hospital is the shortage of space.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

Lakeridge Health provides some of the top healthcare services in the country, but if it is to remain alive and well, the hospital needs to expand, says president and CEO Kevin Empey.

The region’s aging population is set to create a wave of seniors that could put a serious strain on Lakeridge’s four facilities, some of which are already operating over capacity.

Currently, Lakeridge Health employs 500 doctors, 4,000 staff and has 1,200 volunteers across its Oshawa, Bomanville, Port Perry and Whitby locations.

In total, there are 649 beds, the majority of which – 443 – are at the main Oshawa hospital.

At any one time, an average of 60 per cent of Oshawa’s beds are filled by seniors. The elderly population also accounts for nearly a quarter of emergency room visits and 44 per cent of hospital admissions.

“This is the biggest factor that is affecting us and our buildings,” Empey said.

Despite the limited space, Lakeridge still maintains some of the top-ranked cancer and addiction services in the province, as well as seeing more than 1,800 students trained at the hospital annually, a number that has increased by 50 per cent over the last three years.

But it isn’t just the patient space that is limited. In recent years, Lakeridge has defined itself as hub for health research and innovation, but according to Empey, their labs have now overgrown their space.

The health network currently has 140 active research trials, 74 active clinical trials and is the sole Canadian research site in many areas, but conditions at Lakeridge’s hospitals are now seeing closets converted to examination rooms and power supplies being maxed out in the older wings of the hospital. Empey says Lakeridge hopes to develop new spaces to be more focused on research.

The solution comes in the form of a series of massive capital projects, all with multi-million dollar price tags.

Plans to completely retrofit the Bowmanville site could cost anywhere from $125 and $180 million, while projects at the Whitby location could run between $400 and $500 million.

For Oshawa, Lakeridge’s largest location and one of the biggest community hospitals in Ontario, the solution comes in the form of a new tower built on the existing site.

The proposed building, expected to come with a price tag of between $200 million and $300 million – approximately $50 million of that will need to be generated locally – will give Lakeridge Health advanced radiology, more laboratory space and a new pharmacy to support the existing cancer centre. As well, the new tower will include specialized beds for seniors.

Not only does the project address the community’s growth and aging population, but the facilities are aimed at accommodating elder care; it is these factors that make Lakeridge’s proposal to the federal government that much more attractive.

“Everyone who looks at this project says it is a very valid project and you can look at the growth in Durham Region, so therefore that’s the demand that we must meet,” Empey says.

However, the hospital improvement industry is a competitive place as the country’s top hospitals continue to age along with the populations they serve.

Currently, the government agrees to fund 90 per cent of a building, but no equipment costs – which means the hospital must make up the difference.

In the case of Lakeridge, which is looking at nearly $1 billion in improvements across its locations, 20 per cent of that must be generated locally.

The Region of Durham has agreed to fund 7.5 per cent of each of the projects.

Prior to approval, a proposal must be passed through the Ministry of Health’s five-tier process. At the current time, the Oshawa proposal is in the second stage. According to Empey, the project reaching the third stage is the benchmark and a solid indicator that things could move forward.

If that happens, Empey foresees things following a five- to seven-year timeline, though that isn’t ideal.

“My dream would be within a couple of years, but we expect another couple years of getting through the Ministry of Health approval process so we would be talking five to seven years before construction,” he says.

Some of Lakerige’s services are already being strained. One example is the Whitby location, which operates a rehabilitation program consisting of 80 beds. Lakeridge studies show that program should be operating 150 beds and 250 over the long term.

“You could say at that measure, we’re already at that point. We don’t have the facilities to provide the volume of care that we could for the citizens of Durham.”

Mayor John Henry said he is encouraged by the plans at Lakeridge, claiming that growth at the hospital could mean growth in the community.

“It is a community hub, it is one of the largest community hospitals in the province and they’re doing great work. It’s growing to meet the needs of our community,” he says. “It means bringing more research people to the city, bringing more doctors. Our cancer centre is doing amazing things, our pathology centre is number one really in the world. It’s a really good news story.”