Designs on Cancer Care D’Amour Cancer Center Stresses the Patient Experience

Dr. Wilson Mertens knows that no amount of hospitality is going to make a cancer patient forget about the cancer.

But if his staff at the D’Amour Center for Cancer Care can reduce the stress just a little, then the medical team has achieved success even before the patient sees a doctor.

Baystate Health opened the $37.5 million, 65,000-square-foot cancer center on Main Street in Springfield three years ago this January. Since that time, said Mertens, medical director of the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, the facility has welcomed some 300 to 400 patients a day for chemotherapy, radiation, and physician consultations.

And, despite the cutting-edge technology at doctors’ disposal, he said, the staff has never lost sight of patients’ need for comfort at a very difficult time.

Take, for example, the distinct lack of noise pollution that greets patients when they arrive. The D’Amour Center doesn’t sound like a hospital or large medical office, Mertens said, because, except in a cardiac emergency, the paging system remains silent. Instead, the staff use wireless devices and computer screens to communicate.

“That was a little bit of a culture change,” Mertens said. “Some parts of the organization were accustomed to overhead paging, but we had to limit that. It’s important to communicate with staff members, but unless it’s a medical emergency, we’re not going to announce it. This isn’t an airport.” Within a few weeks of the center’s opening, he added, the staff had become accustomed to the lack of chatter — and likely didn’t mind it themselves.

“We obviously try to maintain a certain patient experience within these confines,” Mertens said. “Let’s face it —no one wants to have to come to a cancer center. But if you have to, I think you’d rather come here.”

Three years on, they’re still coming. This month, The Healthcare News takes a look inside the space and examines how aesthetics and science come together to put the patient first.

An Eyeful, but Not an Earful

Mertens helped shepherd the D’Amour Center through its design and construction phases, and he enjoys talking about the building itself as much as he does its services. Some of the design concepts sound like something out of a residential remodel — the open floor plan, for one. Baystate wanted to create a welcoming feel for residents, and that meant not closing off departments from one another.

Upstairs in the infusion suites, where patients receive chemotherapy, often for hours on end, plenty of windows were installed to eliminate a sense of confinement. Meanwhile, a small café down the corridor serves mainly cold foods in an effort to keep aromas from wafting into treatment areas, where many patients are fighting nausea that can be instantly triggered by certain smells.

The serene environment inside the D’Amour Center pleases patients, Mertens said, but it also partly originated with them. Baystate consulted with many of its cancer patients as part of the building design process and made an effort to incorporate those suggestions.

The touches range from the seemingly minor — television sets in waiting areas may be heard only with headphones — to more significant, as in the way the patient treatment areas are designed.

Exam rooms have been configured to allow multiple specialists to see a patient during one visit, Mertens said, which allows them to coordinate opinions and develop a treatment plan with a minimum of inconvenience to the patient.

“It’s natural for physicians to seek out physicians, or want a face-to-face conversation with another specialist,” he said. The design, with fewer doors and fewer doctors working behind barriers, encourages that interaction. Mean-while, access to multiple specialists allows patients to reduce their number of return trips.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that in a building that houses so many active specialists, patients aren’t running into them at every step.

“We’ve straightened out the patient flow and avoided the hurry, confusion, and racket that generally accompany the health care experience,” Mertens said.

“If you’ve ever gone to a doctor’s office, you’ve seen the treatment rooms behind the Plexiglas. We’ve tried to separate the necessary clinical operations from the patient experience. We need to have all those things, but the patient doesn’t need to see them while he’s waiting.”

High-tech Decisions

Of course, as much as these touches make patients feel better, the emphasis is still on treating their cancer, and the D’Amour Center continues to boast some of the most cutting-edge technology available to do just that.

For example, the center made an initial investment of $10 million on radiation therapy equipment alone, including four linear accelerators that are used for external beam radiation. Two of those are equipped with cutting-edge Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) technology, which uses computer charting to maximize the radiation dose to cancer cells while minimizing the impact on surrounding healthy tissue.

“We have IMRT therapy for prostate cancer, head and neck cancer, and some other malignancies in hard-to-reach places,” Mertens said, adding that IMRT remains one of the gold standards in high-tech cancer care. He expects more technological advances to emerge in the coming years — but said Baystate won’t necessarily be the first takers on the block for each one.

“We absolutely want to implement new technologies, but we want to implement them in the correct way,” he told The Healthcare News. “We won’t necessarily be the first out of the gate. We want to see how something impacts patient care before we set sail, and we’ll continue to use that pattern.”

That process involves gathering as much clinical data as possible, as befits a health system recognized for its emphasis on research.

“We want to make sure we’re providing the best care in the Pioneer Valley, not just taking a chance on something,” Mertens continued. “There’s always a new drug or new equipment, but we want to be meticulous.”

Focus on Kids

Three years after it opened its doors, the D’Amour Center still treats a wide variety of conditions, from head and neck cancers to prostate cancer. But Mertens said some services don’t receive the attention that others do.

The Sadowsky Center for Children, located inside the D’Amour Center, is a good example. Although it may not receive the attention the main cancer center does — or even the next-door Comprehensive Breast Center — the facility sees hundreds of patients a year, treating cancers that affect some 12,000 children per year in Massachusetts.

“We run a very busy clinic every day of the week, providing care for children with cancer and a variety of blood disorders,” said Philippa Sprinz, chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.

She explained that the most common childhood cancer in the U.S. is acute leukemia, but the center’s services span a wide range of childhood cancers, including lymphomas, neuroblastomas, soft tissue tumors, and bone tumors. In addition, the facility’s hematologists provide care for about 50 young patients with sickle-cell disease and other blood disorders.

“Our pediatricians are trained in both cancer care and hematology. We pride ourselves in that we provide the most comprehensive service of this type in the area,” Sprinz said, noting that, like the rest of the D’Amour Center, the Sadowsky unit offers a number of self-contained specialties that make treatment — and the travel involved — easier for patients.

“Being a part of the cancer center, we’re able to provide radiation therapy for children,” she said. “That’s much easier than making children have to go to the hospital for radiation and here for their other treatment. That has been a big plus for us.”

Sprinz said the layout of the pediatric facility is so organic and unimpeded by other specialties that it’s obvious to patients that the D’Amour Center was designed with children as well as adults in mind.

“We have a treatment suite where we can do bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps, processes that are crucial in the diagnosis and management of children with leukemia and a variety of tumors,” she said. “It has been absolutely wonderful to do these procedures right here in the cancer center.”

The Total Experience

Sprinz said young patients enjoy the open, airy feel of the Sadowsky Center. Mertens isn’t surprised — particularly since Baystate originally sought design advice from the American Cancer Society and local organizations, such as the Cancer Connection in Northamp-ton, to make sure the design of the D’Amour Center would benefit patients.

“We’re trying to improve the patient experience by creating a calm environment where patients aren’t trampled by clinicians running around in a hurry,” he said.

“It’s no fun having cancer, and we haven’t made it much more fun,” Sprinz said. “But in the way this was built for us, we have made it more tolerable.”
Sometimes, for patients struggling with the greatest crisis of their lives, tolerable is enough.

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