Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Staff Reporter
Mobile Press-Register

USA Cancer Center: No Building but Plenty of Patients

Even as construction crews fill the halls of its future home, the University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute, working from temporary quarters, is bustling with patient visits and research, says director Michael Boyd.

"We're in business, and we have a good program established, and it's growing," Boyd said last week. "We're about as busy as we can function in our existing space right now. It's a real race to keep our capacity in line."

That existing space includes several temporary offices in central and west Mobile being used by oncologists and researchers while workers erect the new $40 million building off Spring Hill Avenue between Mobile Infirmary and USA Children's & Women's Hospital.

Project manager Bill Bramer said the bricks-and-mortar version of the institute is set to open by early 2008.

USA announced its plans to form a comprehensive cancer institute more than seven years ago, in the spirit of the health care trend of bringing a wide range of cancer services together under one roof to provide a team approach.

The project became a joint venture between the university and Infirmary Health System after the two entities penned an expansive partnership in 2005.

As part of that deal, Infirmary gave the university 6.7 acres at Infirmary's flagship hospital off Spring Hill Avenue for the cancer center. The deal also included a Mobile Infirmary long-term lease of the former USA Knollwood hospital campus.

The institute's physical connection to Mobile Infirmary will allow patients -- who will visit the center on an outpatient basis -- to be admitted to an acute-care hospital if necessary. The two sides will also share diagnostic and treatment equipment, Boyd said.

Although a group of health care providers and researchers -- now totaling at least 95 -- have been working for several years to provide care under the institute's name, the completion of a permanent home means room for growth. USA has started recruiting more physicians and researchers, Boyd said.

The new building will "enable us to expand much more rapidly than we did in the past," he said. "We are pretty well jammed into our temporary spaces to the limit, so we slowed down our recruitment."

When finished, the institute will house 175 staff members, according to university information. It will include three levels of clinical space and two floors for research, both surrounded on several sides with open windows to give patients and staff a clear view of the work taking place.

Several of the patient waiting areas will face open glass walls of the research wing, a deliberate design, Boyd said.
"We wanted them (the researchers) to know every day that they're working in a special place, where people are being treated," he said.

The university began recruiting clinical doctors for the institute in 2004 and started seeing patients soon after. For the first year and a half, those visits took place at what was then the USA Knollwood campus.

Those patients, along with surgical oncology cases, are now being seen at a temporary office in front of Mobile Infirmary and across the street from the construction site.

The center also opened its radiation therapy program several years ago. Those patients are now being treated in offices on USA's main campus in west Mobile, Boyd said.

Patients come to the cancer center either from doctor referrals or from self-referrals, Boyd said.

"We haven't been real aggressive in advertising at this point because we wanted to be cautious and not stick our heads out too far until we had the capacity to handle patient volume," Boyd said.

Institute physicians and researchers already meet in groups to discuss some of the center's most challenging cases, Boyd said, but staff interaction will increase tremendously once everyone is together in one place.

The administrative offices for all researchers and doctors will be located across a small hall from each other, and the offices are adjacent to a large common area.

"The heart-and-soul philosophy of this building is that intermingling of doctors and scientists," Boyd said. "That's not always necessary, but often it is in the more complicated situations.

"All too often, it's a more typical situation where cancer care is more fragmented," Boyd said. "It (the institute) is a multidisciplinary approach that's pretty much key to state-of-the-art cancer care this day."

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