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Picture of Health

The new John Muir Medical Center goes high tech and high touch, with talking beds, a putting green, and healing gardens


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Photos by Dennis Brown

Making regular rounds to visit patients, a practice since her days as a nurse, is about to become more difficult for Jane Willemsen. But it’s a trade-off that the president and chief administrative officer of John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek is happy to make.

In April, the hospital opens a new $612 million, six-story building, doubling its size and adding 242 beds—230 of them in private rooms. And these are no ordinary beds. They “talk” to patients, collecting information for doctors.

The whole hospital strives to combine the latest sophistication in health care technology with an earthy mix of warm colors, textures, and garden views that Willemsen calls “high tech with high touch.”

During a recent tour, Willemsen guided visitors through the freshly painted corridors of the new wing, wearing a hardhat and her own fluorescent green construction vest embellished with embroidered flowers and her name in patchwork appliqué—a gift from coworkers. Afterward, Diablo caught up with the fast-moving, upbeat Willemsen to get the behind-the-scenes view.

Diablo: What will the community like best about the new, improved John Muir Medical Center?

Willemsen: Many people only come here when their doctor orders tests. So, we’ve made it much more convenient to walk in the front door and get right to outpatient imaging services and blood work labs. These are all on the ground floor near the main entrance. We’ve also expanded the emergency center [from 22 to 44 private rooms] and made it much more patient-friendly. The old emergency room was antiquated and had no privacy. And we’ve reorganized our triage process to make sure patients can be seen and get the care they need rapidly.

Diablo: What will make nurses and doctors happiest?

Willemsen: The computerized bedside charting in every patient room and the computerized stations outside each intensive care room will make more real-time data available and minimize transcription error. Also, they will like having private patient rooms to work in. Currently, many patient rooms are double rooms. The new beds in intensive care feature computerized devices that are pre-programmed in 23 languages for yes or no questions such as “How much pain are you in right now?” These will be a big help because the attending staff won’t have to wait for interpreters—although interpreters are available for more complex treatment discussions. Plus, there will be dedicated areas in each room for the family, for the patient, and for the clinicians.

Seconds count in major trauma, so we’ve built a new helipad with a dedicated trauma elevator. We’ve greatly reduced the time it takes to get a patient from the helicopter into the trauma room. We’ve also added three new operating rooms and expanded pre-operation and recovery space.

All of this will not only help patients but also reduce the stress on our staff. The staff members are so supportive of this new facility that more than 1,600 of them donated $2 million toward the construction, some through paycheck deductions.

Diablo: What about patients at the medical center?

Willemsen: Private rooms are a wonderful feature for patients, but so are the six holistically designed healing gardens that they will have access to.

We’ve learned a lot over the years about what makes an environment optimal for healing. Often, it is not about more money—just more thoughtful design. We installed indirect lighting in the hallways so when patients are wheeled around, they won’t be looking up into glaring lights.

And they’re going to love the meals our Chez Panisse–trained chef Alison Negrin turns out from our new kitchen. The original kitchen was built in 1965 to serve 100 beds. I don’t know how we managed this long with it. And they’ll love the new putting green. It’s not for the doctors; it’s for our rehab patients who need range-of-motion exercise. And in critical care, we’re going to have the highest level of staffing, with one nurse for every two patients.

Diablo: Have you made special consideration for visiting family and friends?

Willemsen: No more sharing elevators with carts and gurneys: There will be separate elevators for visitors and for medical use to enhance patient privacy. And we’ve gone from 380 parking spaces in an outdoor lot to 787 covered spaces in an eight-story garage.

We also understand that family members spending time here with their loved ones need to eat. So, we will keep an express area of the new cafeteria open after hours for take-out meals and snacks. [The cafeteria, which will look out onto the front garden, will be built at a later time and will not be open in 2011.]

We also have a new 16-bed pediatric unit and a 35-bed neonatal intensive care unit. Every baby will have a room of his or her own, with plenty of room for parents to stay with their baby.

Diablo: What’s your favorite part of the building?

Willemsen: I am thrilled about every part of this new tower. Right now, I love the large central atrium, with water flowing over a bed of river rocks and a climbing forest of bamboo in the center. It is visible on every floor and opens to the sky. But when our front garden is completed, I am going to love that, too. Thanks to a generous private donation, it’s going to include a seven-foot-tall glass and steel sculpture of the Sierras. Natural beauty is soothing and healing and has been a part of our planning throughout the project.

Diablo: What’s the biggest challenge facing this project now?

Willemsen: We’re dealing with medical emergencies every day, so we can’t have the staff unsure about where the elevator is in the new building. We have to get everyone familiar with this place before we open. We also have to strategize about moving the patients. We’ve built the building. Now, we have to turn it into a working hospital. That’s daunting.

Diablo: Do you still plan to visit every patient?

Willemsen: I joke about getting a Segway so I can continue to make the rounds. 

• No more than ninety minutes door to balloon. That’s the gold standard for cardiac catheterization, the emergency care procedure that involves inserting a balloon into the heart to open clogged arteries. Patients who receive this operation within the first 90 minutes of a heart attack have a significantly higher rate of recovery, shorter hospital stays, and reduced risk of significant heart damage or death.

“We’ve got the average time to under 50 minutes, and we’re on track to get it lower than that,” says Mike Thomas, president and chief administrative officer of John Muir Medical Center in Concord.

Heart attack remains the number one cause of death in the United States for both men and women. John Muir’s Concord campus was the first hospital in Contra Costa County to be part of a pilot program in which cardiologists can monitor a heart attack victim’s electrocardiogram data from the ambulance (versus a paramedic reading the machine and relaying information). As a result, doctors save valuable time in diagnosis and treatment.

“When the patient comes through the doors, the cardiologists are set to go,” says Thomas, who formerly headed strategic development at University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

With faster diagnosis and treatment, John Muir Medical Center can offer less-invasive procedures—and more heart muscles and lives can be saved.

With the November opening of its new Hofmann Family Patient Care Tower, which includes the Cardiovascular Institute, 120 new private patient rooms, and a 28,000 square-foot emergency department, John Muir’s Concord campus has morphed into a regional giant in heart health. This new facility completes the Cinderella transformation that began 13 years ago, when Walnut Creek’s John Muir center merged with Mt. Diablo Hospital to expand its reach in the county. Now, John Muir has divvied up key areas of specialization between the two medical centers. 
—D.B.

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