Salem Health is poised to unveil a 150-bed patient tower this summer. Here's an inside look.

Salem Health is slated to open a 150-bed patient tower this summer — an expansion hospital leaders say will continue to meet the demands of a growing community, including an aging population.

When hospital administration took a hard look at census data about five years ago, they were faced with unsettling projections: "(The data) showed that we would be completely out of beds starting essentially this year (2022). And that we would not have enough to meet the community's needs," Salem Health's President and CEO Cheryl Wolfe said.

The new seven-story tower, attached to Building A, has five patient floors, with larger rooms that are all equipped to serve ICU patients. The building also surpasses seismic requirements, meaning, it will be able to offer patient care after a large-scale earthquake. Construction broke ground in January 2020 and is expected to start taking in patients in July. The 150 additional beds will bring the hospital to 644 beds total.

Oregon's population is growing at a rapid pace, including its aging residents. About 809,000 residents over the age of 65 live in Oregon, accounting for about 19% of the state's population, according to Portland State University population estimates. Between 2015 and 2021, the 65-and-older population grew by 23%.

Salem has seen decades of growth — with thousands of people moving to Oregon's capital city for work, housing and access to the outdoors. That growth is expected to continue over the next 15 years, with an estimated 60,000 new residents. By 2035, the population inside Salem's urban growth boundary is predicted to reach 270,000.

According to data from 2018, the hospital has about 26,000 discharges per year. Half the patients at Salem Health are on Medicare, according to Salem Health's Executive Vice President of Operations and Chief Financial Officer James Parr.

"Older folks use health care at a much greater rate than younger people on average and so it became entirely predictable that we needed to add additional beds to our community to meet that inpatient demand," Parr said. "That really started off the conversation."

Hospital leaders, including the Salem Health Board of Trustees, worked with Portland State University to obtain and project census data for the state, and used additional data from the Marion-Polk Community Health Assessment, in order to determine the need for the hospital's expansion plan. Officials also hired an outside consulting firm to help analyze and project growth.

"The advice was pretty solid: 'You're going to be under-bedded. In 10 years, you will not be able to take care of the community,'" Wolfe said. "We weren’t in good shape and we could see how we wouldn’t be able to take care of half a million people in the two counties that we serve.”

"There could've been a decision to just transfer (patients), but that's not what we're here for," she said.

Parr said the data showed that besides Portland, nearly every community in Oregon, including Salem, has a need for hospital beds. Compared to the rest of the nation, Oregon has the lowest number of hospital beds per capita — 1.6 beds per 1,000 people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

When the planning for the new building began in 2017, officials projected they would have about 10 years before the hospital was at capacity with the new building. Hospital leaders will also be looking to eventually build two additional towers with beds, in part to replace Building B, the oldest set of buildings at the hospital.

COVID-19 only validated the need for a long-term plan to accommodate more patients.

"Even though we were communicating the needs, it's still a pretty big leap because you're doing planning for 10 years, you're not doing planning today — and that's the work we have to do with our board," Wolfe said.

The hospital's been over 100% capacity for several months — with patients doubled up — even with a recent census drop in Covid patients, she said.

Initially, the hospital budgeted $235 million for the project. Parr said the hospital later threw in another $10 million to accommodate a fifth patient floor. The funds come from bond-holders and will take 30 years to pay back.

The patient tower is meant to be around for the next 100 years.

Hospital officials said they anticipate filling all 150 beds during the opening month of July. A significant number of patients in building B will be moving to the tower. Officials say they are hiring additional people to staff the building.

The tower is situated on the east side of Building A on the corner of Oak and Capitol streets SE, on what used to be a hospital parking lot. The building is modeled from Building A, but hospital leaders say they've incorporated improvements, largely based on feedback from physicians and staff.

One improvement, according to Salem Health Facilities Director Cindy Wagner, was building a more efficient shower drain in the patient rooms. Other fixes, such as better lighting, grab bars, built-in shelving in the bathrooms and color-coded floors were also added, Wagner said.

Many of the improvements seem small, but they make a big difference, Wolfe said.

Leaders also discovered things they could scale back in the new building, such as waiting rooms. It was found it was wasted space because visitors prefer to be in patient rooms with their loved ones, Wagner said.

The hospital also updated its emergency department plaza and entrance, which was unveiled Tuesday. The covered plaza features a new driveway, patient drop-off and adjacent covered garage parking for emergency room patients and visitors. It also has enhanced lighting, wide lanes, and "prominent" directional signage, officials said in a release.

Salem Hospital’s Emergency Department is one of the busiest in the region, serving more than 100,000 patients each year, officials said. Design considerations for the plaza and driveway took into account that patients arriving at the hospital for emergency services need easy access to minimize any delays in getting to and into the hospital.

Hospital officials said the new tower is an assurance to the community that they will be able to fill their health care needs in the long term.

"Patients are not going to be sitting in the emergency room waiting for a bed," Wolfe said. "It’s really that once they get admission, we can move them quickly into a bed. It just demonstrates to the community that we're committed to taking care of their needs and they don’t have to go anyplace else to get their needs taken care of. There’s very little we don’t do here."

Virginia Barreda is the breaking news and public safety reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at 503-399-6657 or at Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Here's an inside look at Salem Health's new 150-bed patient tower