The new look of local cancer care

One of the rewarding things about being a reporter is the opportunity to follow a long-term story as it unfolds. This has been the case with the Willmar Regional Cancer Center, starting a few years ago when Rice Memorial Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers began seriously talking about combining their cancer services under one roof.

I’ve heard hospital and clinic officials, physicians and staff explain why they think this is a good move. I’ve seen the design phase of the $2 million project and toured the space several times while construction was under way. And having seen the finished product last week, it’s not hard to understand why the folks involved in this project would be so excited about showing it off to the community this weekend. The open house/grand opening for the public is 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Bricks and mortar aren’t the only thing that’s important, of course. It’s the people who make the cancer center what it is. But you can do a whole lot more for patients when you have a physical environment that supports and enhances the services you provide.

The previous arrangement – having the radiation therapy program at Rice and medical/chemotherapy services at ACMC – has always been somewhat fragmented in terms of the patient experience. It also has hindered the establishment of a strong, unified identity for local cancer services, one that says "we’re here and we can treat you if you’re ever diagnosed with cancer."

Now there’s one place patients can go for everything. They no longer have to figure out how to navigate two different buildings and two different parking lots. They can deal with the same staff each time. It gives them some element of familiarity and predictability at a time in their lives when the rug has been pulled out from under their feet.

The picture above shows the new entrance. It’s much more visible than it used to be, and it’s large enough to accommodate wheelchairs, plus family members, caregivers or whoever else might be accompanying the patient.

Here’s the new waiting area:

And another view of the waiting area:

Even though patients and families are not here for a happy reason, the team that planned the design has done their best to reduce the intimidation factor and make it welcoming:

I have to say I’m impressed with the amount of thought that has gone into the details. For instance, there’s now an on-site lab that makes it more convenient to do blood draws and other lab tests. This might not seem like a big deal, but keep in mind that cancer treatment can take a real toll on the patient’s blood counts, especially infection-fighting white cells, hence people undergoing treatment need to visit the lab often to have their counts monitored. In the past, this has meant trekking down to the laboratory department at ACMC or at Rice. It was an extra thing for patients to deal with at a time when they were often struggling with fatigue, plus it risked exposing them to a whole range of other patients while they were immune-compromised. Now they can have their blood drawn right there in the cancer center – a small thing, perhaps, but one that helps make the treatment experience a little easier.

Ditto with the on-site pharmacy. In the past, all the drug solutions were mixed and prepared by chemotherapy nurses. Given that many patients on chemotherapy are each receiving an average of two to three intravenous drugs, plus pre-treatment IV steroids and anti-nausea medication, this can be very time-consuming. The on-site pharmacy is now staffed by Rice Hospital pharmacists, which has freed nurses to spend more time with patients.

One of the biggest physical improvements, in fact, is the chemotherapy environment. With chemotherapy sessions that can take two – and sometimes as many as six – hours, comfort matters. Patients now have their pick of an open treatment bay or a semi-private room. The treatment bay is large enough to accommodate up to six patients and is equipped with a big-screen TV and snack bar. There are eight semi-private rooms, each with TV, and roomy enough to include family members.

Nice chairs, pleasant lighting and art on the walls might not make much difference in a successful outcome, but if you talk to patients most of them will say they appreciate an environment that helps them feel physically and emotionally more comfortable. After all, they spend a lot of time here under stressful, demanding circumstances. If they’re receiving chemotherapy, they more than likely will undergo multiple sessions of treatment. Radiation therapy generally requires coming in five days a week, often for anywhere from four to six weeks. Many patients have both chemotherapy and radiation, necessitating many, many visits over the course of months. On some level, the physical surroundings do matter.

And let’s not forget the support services. By uniting under one roof, the Willmar Regional Cancer Center is now able to increase these. The staff is especially excited about a new nurse navigator program, which makes a full-time nurse available to help connect patients and families with extra resources, whether it’s financial assistance they need or help with home care or nutrition. It’s a service that, frankly, has been lacking in the past – and one that many patients and families sorely need.

One of the goals of the cancer center is to eventually start a survivorship program as well. It’s increasingly being recognized that the transition out of active cancer treatment is, in its own way, as stressful and uncertain as the beginning of treatment. There has long been an unmet need for helping these patients make the transition. There’s also a growing number of people who survive cancer, as well as people living long term with chronic cancer, who would benefit from support services aimed at helping them live as well as possible.

It’s hard to put a dollar value on services such as a nurse navigator or a survivorship program. But just like the physical environment, these intangible things – the attentiveness, the personal approach – often do matter greatly to patients and families.

There’s a tendency for people to shun their own back yard in the belief they’ll get a better product or service by going out of town. And to be sure, there are times when cancer patients are best served by going to Rochester or the Twin Cities or elsewhere for the specialized care they need. But bigger does not necessarily mean better. There’s a lot to be said for having this level of cancer care available close to home and knowing the quality measures and the outcomes stack up every bit as well as those at larger facilities.

West Central Tribune photos by Ron Adams and Anne Polta

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