Construction of new cancer center to begin at Cooley Dickinson Hospital

Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — The first highly visible sign that a new era in cancer treatment is dawning at Cooley Dickinson Hospital will roll onto the hospital grounds Monday morning in the form of a 200-ton crane.

Over a seven-day span, construction crews will use the crane to position 108 steel beams onto the roof of what will become part of the new Mass General Cancer Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. Once it opens in the fall, hospital officials envision the $9.3 million, 15,600-square-foot center will be a thriving hub of unified and expanded cancer services.

The cancer center will offer the latest and most advanced services for patients in a more convenient, more comfortable environment than they currently experience, said Dr. Mark Novotny, Cooley Dickinson’s chief medical officer. These services will include the same treatment protocols, genetic counseling and consultations that they could get at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston.

“The real hope to this entire space, and to the entire program, is to make it as patient-centered as possible,” said Avital Carlis, administrative director of the cancer center.

The new center will serve as a satellite to the Boston center, and will follow all of Massachusetts General Hospital’s regulations and treatment protocols for chemotherapy and radiation. As part of this arrangement, three medical oncologists and two radiation oncologists at Cooley Dickinson are now part of the Mass General Physician Organization. They will practice exclusively at the new cancer center at Cooley Dickinson, but are now employees of Massachusetts General Hospital.

While the new cancer center is under construction, these doctors will provide care out of the Cooley Dickinson Medical Group’s hematology and oncology and radiation oncology departments.

Novotny said the point of the project is to bring the quality and safety of care at Massachusetts General to Cooley Dickinson, something the two hospitals have been working toward for some time through clinical collaboration among physicians. Hospital officials hope that patients will see that by coming to Cooley Dickinson for cancer care, the hospital can help them decide which services can take place locally and which might require a trip to Boston for more advanced procedures.

“We intend, with Mass General, to give the patient a sense that we have the bases covered,” Novotny said. “That they can be confident that they’re not going to come to Cooley and get something that would be better in Boston. We’ll tell them if its better in Boston.”

The first step in the process involved renovating and expanding the hospital’s pharmacy across the hall from the new cancer center. That development gives the hospital the ability to mix chemotherapy for patients in a new sterile preparation space, among other changes. The state Department of Public Health recently approved the new pharmacy, which is expected to start operating in mid-February following additional testing.

Novotny said the pharmacy includes two new oncology trained pharmacists and two technicians who are experts in chemotherapy mixing. These chemotherapy regimens will be prepared and administered following the same process Mass General uses to treat patients in Boston. In the past, chemotherapy treatments were administered by the physicians in their offices, he said.

The new cancer center is being constructed above the radiation oncology and emergency departments in the North Building at Cooley Dickinson. Crews have been working for several months to rehabilitate an existing 13,500 square feet of space on the building’s second floor that most recently housed physical and occupational outpatient services. Those latter services have since been relocated to new space in an office building at 8 Atwood Drive.

Preparing the site

On Wednesday, preparations were being made atop the emergency department roof where the crane will place the steel beams for a 2,100-square-foot addition that will include glass windows with a view of Childs Park, said Craig Wilbur, a project manager overseeing the construction project for Pinck & Co., the general contractor which has offices in Boston and Springfield. This phase of construction will close the hospital’s rotary, and restrict pedestrian access from the main parking area to the North Building entrance. A parking lot closest to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School will be accessible from the Hospital Road entrance only, and patients and visitors who use this lot will be able to enter the hospital through the North Building entrance.

Novotny said hospital officials spent considerable time gathering ideas about how the cancer center should be designed, including developing life-size mock-ups of some of the spaces such as the infusion rooms where chemotherapy is administered. Doctors, patients, nurses and others spent time visiting these mock-ups and offering suggestions for design improvements.

Carlis said the center will include eight exam rooms, with the ability to expand into 12 rooms when needed. These rooms are key to implementation of a multidisciplinary-care model in which patients meet their medical, radiation and surgical oncologists at one time to plan care rather than having to go from office to office or set up separate appointments. These doctors will also be able to collaborate with their peers in Boston through high-tech video connections.

“This is a really new experience for patients, so it completely avoids the, ‘I thought the other guy said,’ ” Novotny explained.

Carlis added that much of this work is already being done by doctors who meet weekly to come up with treatment plans.

“The only difference is, can we do it during the day in front of the patient rather than waiting once a week?” she said.

The center also will include a new, spacious 18-chair “infusion unit” where patients will get chemotherapy treatments. The infusion area will include private rooms with plenty of space for visitors. It will include glass windows with views of Childs Park. Right now, patients are crammed together in a tight space with only 12 chairs.

“We think it will be pleasant space,” Carlis said.

The center will also include a reception area, laboratory services, and clinical space for consultations, among other areas.

“We want to have as much co-located stuff that the patients are going to use on a regular basis in the same place,” Carlis said.

Cooley Dickinson’s development office, meanwhile, continues to raise money for the project through a $5 million capital campaign. Spokeswoman Christina Trinchero said the hospital has raised slightly more than $3.1 million of its goal.

Carlis is one of two key administrators brought on by Massachusetts General to help get the new cancer center started. She previously worked at the hospital’s cancer center in Boston. The other administrator is Janet O’Connor, the center’s nurse administrator who previously worked in a similar capacity at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

The physicians who are part of the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization and will work at the new center are radiation oncologists Linda E. Bornstein and Jennifer J. Hyder, and medical oncologists Sean D. Mullally, Barrett Newsome and Lindsay E. Rockwell.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.