Building today for tomorrow's health-care needs

Future Tense for Mar. 17, 2008

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

When Northern Hospital of Surry County was built 50 years ago, some farsighted people envisioned the changes coming in health care, but few anticipated the pace of change.

Northern Hospital has kept pace with those changes by expanding and renovating its facilities several times since the 1980s.

Its latest project started a few weeks ago. At a cost of $32.8-million, the hospital will add nearly 64,000 square feet of space and renovate almost 38,000. From the outside, people will see a new building adjoining the existing facility, a new parking ramp and, across South Street, a new service building.

But the real transformation, and the one most important to future health-care providers and patients, will occur inside the hospital.

For at least 20 years, surgery has been done in a suite of operating rooms designed primarily for inpatient procedures that may have been state-of-the-art in the 1980s, but now, in many cases, have been replaced by new techniques, technology and concepts of case management. By 1996, three out of every eight surgeries in U.S. hospitals were being done on an outpatient basis. Since then, surgeons have developed and mastered minimally invasive endsoscopic techniques for treatment of the appendix, spleen, colon, stomach, kidney, liver and other organs. However, these procedures require much more high-tech equipment, such as computers and monitors. In addition to requiring more space in the operating rooms, that equipment strains older electrical and air-handling systems.

Northern Hospital does not need more operating rooms; it needs larger ones. Remedying that need is at the core of the proposed expansion. Even if it had the available space, the hospital could not shut down its operating rooms while renovation was under way. Therefore, it must add a new building to house surgical services.

The project will allow the hospital to put many related services in close proximity to each other, both in the new building and by renovating the old surgical suite. Those changes will improve conditions for both patients and staff.

We’re all conscious of rising health-care costs and, naturally, some people may have concerns about what this project will mean to costs for care at Northern Hospital. CEO Bill James said it’s a concern for the hospital, too. However, he also said the project will improve efficiency, enough that Northern Hospital should be able “to postpone the need to hire additional employees in response to increases in volume.” James added, “The project will also eliminate the on-going expenses involved with repairs, maintenance and disruption of service associated with the outdated HVAC system.”

It's a far-sighted project that will help Northern Hospital provide more and better health-care services for people in and around Surry County... in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of His e-mail address is

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at