It was a major change for che-motherapy patients when the Willmar Regional Cancer Center opened last month.
Instead of going to Affiliated Community Medical Centers, patients are now being treated by their oncologist at the newly integrated center at Rice Memorial Hospital. The change has been "pretty dramatic," said Dr. J. Michael Ryan, the center's medical oncologist. "I think they really are impressed with it."
For the first time, medical and radiation therapy services are united under one roof, a move the center's partners hope will help patients and strengthen the local ability to provide comprehensive cancer care.
ACMC and Rice, which own the cancer center through their Willmar Medical Services joint venture, look forward to showing it off to the public during an open house Saturday.
"It's just an exciting time for the whole community and for the patients," said Barb Hoeft, the center's director.
ACMC and the hospital began exploring the concept of integrating their cancer services almost 15 years ago. But it wasn't until the creation of their joint venture two years ago that there was a formal structure to help move the concept forward.
Construction on the $2 million project in Rice Hospital's west wing started last spring, beginning with a major makeover of the existing radiation therapy department. The final phase, renovation for chemotherapy and support services, was finished in time to open the doors on Dec. 14.
From the start, the goal was to create a seamless experience for patients so they could receive everything they need "at one campus in one spot," said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Willmar Medical Services. "We wanted an environment that's open and friendly and supportive and to have as much as possible in one place."
The regional cancer center is equipped to treat most types of cancer except for those needing highly specialized care, such as pediatric cancers or brain tumors.
Treatment protocols follow national guidelines, Ryan said. "We try to make sure we're in touch with the latest treatments and what's the best way to handle cases."
Data on treatment and outcomes, collected through the local tumor registry, indicate patients treated here fare as well as anywhere else, he said.
A new affiliation with the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis is expected to give access to more consultation and an even wider range of treatment protocols, including some that are more advanced and not available except at larger institutions. The cancer center also has a research program enabling eligible patients to participate in selected clinical trials.
The Willmar Regional Cancer Center currently has access to about 20 clinical trials, but this will quadruple as a result of the partnership with the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute, Hoeft said.
Officials at both Rice and ACMC see cancer care as a critical local service. Nationally, it's estimated that the demand for oncologists, or cancer specialists, will double within the next 20 years as the population ages.
"By having a facility like this, we're more competitive in recruiting specialists," Holmgren said.
Being able to provide comprehensive services close to home is important for the region, said Dr. John Ling, the cancer center's radiation oncologist.
"We have the advantage of being closer where the patients reside. We have the same facilities as the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota," he said. "Patients appreciate that very, very much."
Local officials know there's demand. Initial projections are for 60 to 70 patients a day. During the cancer center's first week alone, there were 388 patient encounters, Hoeft said. "We were busy."
Market studies also indicate there are patients going elsewhere who could receive the same treatment in Willmar.
Marketing the center and letting the public know what's available is one of the initial goals now that the cancer center is officially open, Holmgren said. Efforts also are under way to recruit another medical oncologist.
Tracking the number of new cases, increasing the types of cancer therapy available locally and monitoring patient satisfaction are among the benchmarks that will let the cancer center know how well it succeeds during its first year, Holmgren said.
"I think it will be something that will be positive for the community for many years to come," he said. "That's a good feeling."