More than 100 people braved frigid temperatures Tuesday morning (Feb. 22) to mark the beginning of construction on a $162.5 million expansion of Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith that will focus on new emergency room and intensive care unit (ICU) areas, and parking.
According to a hospital press release, Mercy Fort Smith will expand its emergency department from 29 to 50 rooms and boost beds in the intensive care unit from 38 to 64. The new ER will allow for about 25,000 more patient visits per year and include “special considerations for infectious disease and behavioral health patients.” The ER expansion includes a five-room secured area for behavioral health patients that is designed for patient and co-worker safety.
Expansion of the ICU will more than double rooms available to support ventilators, and an automation system will allow some spaces to be turned into isolation areas, noted the press release.
Additional plans include a 22-bed observation unit requiring no renovation in the former ICU space, helipad relocation that will improve the patient transport process and new gift shop and meeting room space. The work also includes 140 more parking spaces, with parking closer to the new ER entrance.
“We’ve been dreaming and working on this design for the past year or more,” said Ryan Geib, chief operating officer at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith. “This project will change the face of the building you see behind me. It will also change the way our community experiences care.”
According to economic impact info from the hospital, project construction will have a temporary benefit of 400 jobs with an estimated value to the regional economy of $34 million. Once completed the expansion will result in 168 new jobs – added over two to three years – with a labor impact of $15.5 million, and 56 indirect jobs with an impact of $3.7 million.
St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Companies will oversee construction, with completion expected in late 2024.
Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Hospital Fort Smith, said one of the biggest challenges will be in staffing the increased patient capacity.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the American Hospital Association, job vacancies for many nursing jobs rose by 30% between 2019 and 2020, with a 31% increase in vacancies among respiratory therapists. Premier, a healthcare consulting company, reported in November 2021 that staff turnover related to “COVID-19 pressures” rose 45% in high-stress areas like ICU compared to pre-pandemic levels, and turnover overall is up 23%. A 2021 Mercer External Labor Market Analysis estimates a shortage of 3.2 million workers in the U.S. healthcare sector by 2026.
“It is a challenge. It’s a challenge across the country, and we’re exploring every creative solution we can,” Gehrig told Talk Business & Politics. “We’re in conversations with local nursing schools looking at opportunities to open up more clinical slots. We’re talking to some schools about different programs, things like, we need more respiratory therapists in our region.”
Gehrig said part of the challenge is not only in connecting the “huge demand” among people wanting to get into healthcare with the limited training and school capacity but in working with education providers to add more training “slots.” He also said the changing nature of the workplace and workplace flexibility is changing the search for healthcare workers.
“And the other thing I’d tell you is we’re looking at the new workforce. They really want more flexibility. We’re looking at some nontraditional work schedules that may attract a nurse who decided to hang it up but may be interested in working four to six hours a day even. That would be a huge help,” Gehrig said. “As you know, the workforce is rapidly evolving and we’re in the middle of all that ourselves.”
Gehrig said the hospital will “ramp up [hiring] several months in advance” of the completion of the expansion.