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Changes in store as Willmar Cancer Center patient numbers grow

Erica Dischino / Tribune Growing patient numbers at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center have created a space crunch, including in the reception area shown here, which also leads to privacy concerns. An expansion plan under development will receive funds raised by the Rice Health Foundation’s annual gala. 1 / 3
Erica Dischino / Tribune Growing patient numbers at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center have created a space crunch, including in the waiting area shown here. An expansion plan under development for the center will receive funds raised by the Rice Health Foundation’s annual gala. 2 / 3
Erica Dischino / Tribune Funds raised by the Rice Health Foundation’s annual gala this year will go toward the Willmar Regional Cancer Center's expansion project to accommodate a larger patient volume. Architects are working on a plan to remedy the space crunch in such areas as the waiting room, shown here, the reception area and treatment areas. 3 / 3

WILLMAR — Changes are in store at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center to make it more patient-friendly and position it for future growth.

It wasn't that long ago — barely eight years — that the facility invested $2 million in expansion and renovation to bring all its services together under one roof.

But already it's time for the next leap forward, said Mary Kjolsing, Cancer Center director.

"We've just grown out of the space faster than people anticipated. We need more space for patient care, for support services," she said.

The project has been chosen to receive the funds raised by the Rice Health Foundation's annual gala. The sold-out event Friday at the Willmar Conference Center raises somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000 each year for designated projects at Rice Memorial Hospital. It is the foundation's largest fundraiser each year,

Cancer care resonates widely with the public, said Shirley Carter, executive director of the Rice Health Foundation.

"Everyone you talk to knows someone who has been impacted," she said. "They get this."

Patient numbers have grown steadily at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center. In 2014 there were almost 7,200 patient visits. By 2018 this had risen to 10,800 visits, and the numbers this year are continuing on an upward trajectory, Kjolsing said.

"We're in line to have 700 new patients this year," she said.

All of this has created a growing space crunch, however. The waiting room and reception area are increasingly crowded, creating privacy concerns for both patients and staff, Kjolsing and Carter said.

New modalities of cancer treatment being added locally will expand what's available and contribute to an ongoing increase in patient volume, they said.

Recruitment efforts are underway to bring in a third medical oncologist, which will require additional space as well, Kjolsing said. "We have to have room for another physician and the additional support staff."

More space also will help facilitate supportive care for patients such as massage and other complementary therapies, she said.

Another upcoming change is the development of an infusion center that will consolidate non-cancer infusion services at Rice Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers under one roof at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center. The move will allow resources, specialized equipment and trained staff to be combined to better meet the needs of patients, Kjolsing said.

New occupational health requirements that go into effect next year also will necessitate some renovation of the Cancer Center pharmacy, where chemotherapeutic drugs are handled and mixed.

All of these improvements have yet to have a price tag attached.

"The plan is being developed," Carter said. "At this point we don't know how much it's going to cost. The architects are working on it."

It's hoped that the first phase of construction can start next year, she said.

The gala fundraiser Friday night probably won't raise enough money to cover the entire cost but the funds should go a long way toward making the project a reality, Carter said. "We're not going to limit ourselves to a goal. The sky's the limit."

She and Kjolsing said the growth in patient volume at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center can be traced to several factors.

Cancer diagnoses tend to be concentrated among older adults, and the region's population is aging, they said. There also has been an uptick in the number of patients who choose to obtain cancer care locally, where they can be close to their familiar circles of support yet still have access to quality care, new treatment options and clinical trials.

"I think with people realizing they're going to get the same treatment regimen here as they would in Rochester or the Twin Cities, it makes sense to do it close to home," Kjolsing said.

The renovation will help position the Willmar Regional Cancer Center to "provide better care, more patient-centered care," she said. "We're always looking at what we can do better for our patients."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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