AUGUSTA — There’s a huge demand for bed space at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s new hospital.
A month after the 192-bed hospital near Interstate 95 in north Augusta opened, hospital officials say the medical/surgical and critical care units are full at least one day a week, and some patients have to remain in the emergency department until beds become available.
“I think what surprised us was being full so quickly,” said Chuck Hays on Wednesday. Hays is chief executive officer of MaineGeneral Health, the hospital’s parent organization, and his office windows overlook one wing of the hospital and the nearby Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care, also part of MaineGeneral.
“We’ve had a day a week that we’ve been full since we’ve opened,” he said. “So we’re not constantly full, but we’ve had a lot of business.”
He said officials are busy refining the processes to handle that.
“On Monday, for example, all our med/surg beds were 100 percent full, critical care was 100 percent full, so as you work with individuals to discharge, you also have individuals in the ER.” Hays said families are asked whether they want to wait or be transfered to another hospital.
“Most of the time they’ll wait,” he said.
He said that’s one of the hospital’s biggest challenges.
“We are pleased that our community is turning to us for their care,” said hospital spokeswoman Diane Peterson.
The patient census since Nov. 9 — the day the new hospital opened — has averaged 86 percent, a number that is in tune with the 85 percent some hospital watchers have classified as the “sweet spot” or an optimum percentage, Peterson said.
“There is always a fine balance between hospital occupancy and bed availability,” said Karen Joynt, of the Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, in an email on Thursday. “Having too high of an occupancy rate can lead to crowding and inefficiency. Having too low of an occupancy rate is not financially tenable.”
Figures from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the occupancy rate for nonprofit community hospitals such as MaineGeneral, was about 66 percent in 2008, the latest year figures were available. In Maine, hospital occupancy rates have dropped by almost two percent since 1980.
“In general, hospital occupancy has been falling over the past few decades as we do more in the outpatient setting and as length of stay gets shorter,” Joynt said. “There are a lot of community hospitals with occupancy rates below 50 percent, particularly in more rural areas.”
At MaineGeneral Medical Center, the 192 beds include 108 in medical/surgical, 16 in critical care, 20 in acute rehabilitation, 14 in obstetrics and four in pediatrics. An additional 30 beds in a separate area of the hospital are designated for treating people with mental health and substance abuse problems.
MaineGeneral initially proposed a 226-bed hospital to accommodate in-patient services offered at its Thayer campus in Waterville and the East Chestnut Street hospital in Augusta, which would be absorbed into the new hospital.
However, state regulators ordered a cut of 34 beds and a corresponding reduction in the size of the building proposed. Hospital officials sought a compromise, offering to reduce the beds — all of which are in private rooms — by 10. Alternatively, they asked to build shell space so up to 34 beds could be added later. Both requests were denied.
In 2010, when MaineGeneral was licensed to have 287 beds between its Waterville and Augusta campuses.
And even as the new $312 million hospital finds a high percentage of the medical/surgical and critical care beds occupied — and has welcomed 64 newborns, including four sets of twins — the cafeteria with the expansive view from the terrace level is proving very popular, Hays said.
Valet parking too is in high demand — another surprise, Hays said. On week days, the hospital offers valet parking for patients and families.
“On the second or third day, the valets parked 300 cars,” Hays said.
Some 1,870 people work at the new hospital, with the hospital calculating that as more than 1,300 full-time equivalent positions.
Hays exchanges greetings with some of them and with visitors as he walks through the wide corridors of the new hospital.
“We’re still new to it, there are bugs that we’re working out and continue to fix,” he said. “The good news is we don’t have any technological issues or any major clinical issues or any of those, which is great. Now we’ve just got to get more efficient on our flow and with our processes.”
Part of that has involved expanding hours in MaineGeneral Express Care facilities at 15 Enterprise Drive, Augusta and 211 Main St., Waterville. They are open 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and 8 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends and holidays, excluding Thanksgiving and Christmas.