Seeking to free up space in three hospitals, save money by consolidating labs and improve the speed and accuracy of testing, UPMC is spending $45 million to create a new centralized lab in Oakland that will be served by an age-old technology that has disappeared from much of the business world -- pneumatic tubes.
The project marks a first for the region by running the tubes farther than just the building next door. Instead, to connect Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC to the new lab in the former Rangos Research Center building at the intersection of McKee Place and Fifth Avenue, the underground tubes will stretch two blocks, or about 300 yards, from the hospital.
The tubes will carry blood samples and other tissue.
In all, 13 labs from Magee, UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Montefiore, and 350 employees, will be merged into one building, where samples from nurses and doctors will come from more than 107 tube stations in the hospitals, whether it's for hematology, histology, chemistry, tissue typing, microbiological or other testing. Up to $2.5 million could be saved annually through the consolidation.
Dave King, the foreman on the job for Swisslog, the company building the tube system for UPMC, uses colorful, 3-D-like pictures of intersecting steel tubes to guide him on the project. But it looks more like a page out of a Dr. Seuss book than the time- and cost-saving and patient care improvement project it is.
Ten 6-inch-diameter tubes coming into the "exchange" room from the three hospitals swoop in at odd angles, bending and twisting over and under one another before plunging into large, metal boxes that house computerized recognition systems. Those computers read codes from the 1-foot-long "carriers" that hold samples sent from those hospitals, before "blowers" send them out immediately through one of 13 other tubes that also loop and contort as they leave the room before heading to the right location somewhere in the new lab building.
"It's so complicated," said Mr. King, who has worked 15 years for Swisslog, "that you have to only think about the piece of the project you're working on now. If you think two or three steps ahead, it will overwhelm you."
While pneumatic tubes have largely disappeared from places where they used to be common -- retail stores, mail systems and offices -- almost every major hospital in the Pittsburgh region and the country still uses the nearly 200-year-old technology to transport blood samples or pharmaceutical drugs inside the same building.
"Technology got rid of a lot of the need for a lot of tube systems. There's not the need anymore to send most of the documents businesses did through tubes," said Buddy Bishop, Swisslog's sales representative for the Pittsburgh area. "But you can't fax a blood sample."
The tubes use air and vacuum pressure to send the cylindrical carriers at speeds up to 17 mph. They are much faster than a human courier could ever be inside the labyrinth of a modern hospital or hospital campus.
Consolidating labs via massive tube systems is unusual here, but it's not nationally.
"It has become more common," said Steve Dahl, director of product development and marketing for Pevco, a Baltimore-based company that is the second-largest maker of hospital tube systems after Swisslog, a global logistics provider based in Switzerland. "As hospitals expand, they're rarely one building anymore. And centralizing labs is becoming more typical as a way to reduce costs. You save money on employees and on equipment. And real estate is so valuable the more you can devote space in a hospital to patient care all the better."
While UPMC's current tube project is the biggest one in the region, others around the country go much farther, including one at Duke University Hospital system in North Carolina that stretches over half a mile. Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis has one that goes just over a mile between buildings at its longest stretch.
That long distance between Magee and the new lab is the cause of the current closure of Halket Street in Oakland, adjacent to Magee. Crews are still burrowing 17 feet under Forbes Avenue there to make way for the space where four pneumatic tubes will snake from Magee, up Halket and then down Euler Way into the garage that is attached to the new lab building.
UPMC is spending $6 million to expand the internal pneumatic tube systems that already exist in the hospitals, so that they flow into the newly created, $39 million Clinical Lab Building.
It's the centralized lab that is driving the project.
"Conceptually, UPMC has been working on the idea of a consolidated lab for many, many years," said Stacey Armstrong, vice president of ambulatory care at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, who is overseeing the lab project. "It was moving Rangos that made it possible."
When UPMC moved Children's Hospital to Lawrenceville in 2008, it relocated Children's research facility -- Rangos -- as well.
That made the then-abandoned, nine-story, 100,000-square-foot, 82-year-old building a perfect fit for the centralized lab, since it was close to Montefiore and Presbyterian -- which were the hospitals originally targeted for lab consolidation.
But when Ms. Armstrong was brought in to oversee the lab project 2 1/2 years ago, "I had new eyes, and I noticed, 'Hey, isn't Magee about the same distance from this new lab site as Presbyterian?' I thought we could tie it all together."
It turns out Magee is only a little bit farther away than Presbyterian to the new lab building. But, because Presbyterian already had a tube system tied in to Montefiore -- which is located directly across the street from the new lab building -- connecting Montefiore/Presbyterian to the lab was going to be much easier than adding Magee.
"Digging up the street to put in tubes is a big project," Mr. King said. "But, when you tie in Magee along with Montefiore and Presby, instead of just Montefiore and Presby, it's like going from a two-lane highway to a six-lane superhighway in complexity."
The entire project will serve multiple goals, Ms. Armstrong said, from saving money through consolidation, to improving the accuracy and speed of testing, to -- ultimately -- improving patient care.
Building the centralized lab will mean freeing up more than 100,000 square feet in the three hospitals -- more than half of it in Presbyterian Hospital's two buildings that house labs currently.
And consolidating the 13 labs into one building will allow "right-sizing" the staff from those labs, Ms. Armstrong said, though she didn't believe anyone would lose a job, but might be asked to work a different job after the merger.
The savings of up to $2.5 million annually through consolidation come from needing fewer staff, to needing less equipment and other efficiencies. For example, when new testing equipment is needed for the labs that are duplicated among the three hospitals -- such as microbiology at Magee and Presbyterian -- fewer pieces of those pieces of equipment may be needed.
Both parts of the project are nearing completion. The goal is to have the tube system up and running by March, so that it can be tested and fully functioning by the time the labs are open and running in June.
"They'd be in big trouble if the tubes aren't working by then," said Tom Schwartzmier, senior project manager for the construction end of the project for UPMC. "They'd have to use couriers."
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579.