West Penn ER back to life

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West Penn Hospital's emergency room department reopens at 8 a.m. today, featuring a renovated entry, 23 patient beds, a fast-track triage system and several technology upgrades, including a state-of-the-art CT scanner coming next month.

The reopening is a direct byproduct of the planned affiliation between insurer Highmark Inc. and the West Penn Allegheny Health System. Highmark president and CEO Kenneth Melani, who did his medical residency at West Penn, said at Monday's announcement that the plan is "to make West Penn Hospital all that it can be and all that it should be."

That was good news to Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., one of the neighborhood groups that had lobbied to keep West Penn a full-service hospital.

"This is a very joyous day for the neighborhood," she said. "There is something unique about the love and care you get at West Penn."

Although not in attendance at Monday's announcement, the owners of restaurants and other nearby businesses should benefit, too, Ms. Brose said, as West Penn's growing staff stops by for lunch or just to shop. "This is a lifeline to the businesses on Liberty Avenue, and I think they were starting to hurt very much."

Thomas Campbell, who heads emergency medicine for the West Penn Allegheny Health System and was the medical director of West Penn's emergency department for more than 20 years, said he was delighted with the renovated emergency medicine area. It was his job to oversee the department's closure in December 2010 as part of a consolidation and restructuring initiative.

"It was one of the saddest days of my career," he said. Had Highmark not stepped in last June, the WPAHS board was prepared to close the Bloomfield campus.

Now based at Allegheny General, Dr. Campbell said he will be seeing patients at West Penn again. On July 1, the West Penn emergency department will have a new director, Bruce A. MacLeod, who is currently on staff at UPMC Mercy. Dr. MacLeod was chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Mercy from 1993 to 2010.

Dr. Campbell said the West Penn emergency department will have three full-time physicians and a nursing staff largely composed of staff who worked at the hospital before the department closed.

At its 2008 peak, West Penn's emergency services treated between 32,000 and 33,000 patients yearly, Dr. Campbell said, but patient volume started to decline and, with last year's announcement in June that it would close in six months, just under 20,000 patients were seen.

He expects the new emergency room will primarily see people from the surrounding Bloomfield-Garfield community at first, but "as we get more physicians upstairs, that will bring in patients from the greater ZIP codes."

State health department officials inspected the emergency department a week ago and gave their approval for the reopening. And other renovations are coming soon during Phase 1 of the West Penn makeover. Combined with the emergency department reopening, they are expected to create about 200 additional jobs at the hospital.

On the newly renovated ninth floor medical-surgical unit, the staff was expecting its first 12 patients on Monday. The unit has 17 private rooms now, with an additional 22 due for completion by March 1.

Two floors below, workers are still completing an 18-bed medical surgical intensive care unit due to open in late March.

Dr. Campbell said they expect to open a catheterization laboratory this summer and, until then, people coming into the ER with chest pain will be transported to either UPMC Shadyside or Allegheny General.

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963. First Published February 14, 2012 5:00 AM


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