New Cancer Facilities Or Just Reshuffling Service

June 7, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center has raised more than $32 million — including a $10 million challenge grant — towards construction of the $42 million Richard K. Lacks Sr. Cancer Center.

The new five-floor treatment facility at the southwest corner of Lafayette and Cherry streets is scheduled to bring the hospital’s outpatient and inpatient cancer care services together under one roof in 2004.

Meanwhile, Spectrum Health says it is planning a $35 million,45,000-square-footoutpatient cancer facilityon its Butterworth Campus on Michigan Avenue downtown.

Construction of that building is expected to begin the same year that the Lacks facility is completed.

The new facility will consolidate outpatient cancer services now housed at Spectrum’s Butterworth and Blodgett campuses. 

So what does it all mean for the Grand Rapids community?

Lody Zwarensteyn, president of the Alliance for Health, told the Business Journal that the amount of attention focused on cancer locally has the potential — if harnessed correctly — to catapult the level of cancer care to a whole new level.

But he also said that if all the hospitals do is just rearrange what they have now and put it under new roofs, then the community won’t really benefit that much, though he said he’s hopeful that cancer care would become a bit more efficient and a bit more convenient.

“Any real gain is not in the number or type of facilities we have,” he said. “It’s in the programmatic approach to taking care of cancer.”

He explained that a real cancer center, as defined by the national cancer institutes and the National Institute for Health, is a institution that is involved in major research and teaching.

He said such a center would represent a great opportunity in the community. 

“If it’s not really a center, then it’s pretty much the same care [that’s available now], because it’s the same oncologists in the community that go to all the facilities.

“We’re not really, in that sense, harnessing as much opportunity that’s there for us as we could.”

He believes the community is easily large enough to support a major focus on cancer, and it could be organized in one or multiple centers.

But he said the facility is less important than the organization. 

“There is sufficient incidence of cancer to easily require the efforts of multiple providers and odds are there will continue to be for a while,” Zwarensteyn said.

“We do need a lot of resources — all the resources we have right now — to keep up with it.

“Population is increasing and, if nothing else happens, it’s going to bode something because, obviously, the longer you live, the longer your exposure and the more likelihood that something’s going to happen.”

But he believes that what’s being talked about now is just a reshuffling. The operating rooms, chemotherapy programs and inpatient and outpatient facilities are already here.

“Reorganizing those kinds of facilities is one thing, and that’s largely what’s being proposed.

“But if we talk about moving it up to that level of being a true center involved in major research and teaching, that’s a whole different thing.

“Then we’re bringing the most current of everything to this community and actually making the community part of the process of advancing care and, hopefully, finding cures.”

He said he sees a great opportunity for linking the St. Mary’s and Spectrum programs to the kind of work being done at the Van Andel Institute. But that’s not inherent in what has been talked about to date, he added.

Spectrum currently controls nearly 80 percent of the market share in the treatment of new cancer patients.

Could two new facilities bring some healthy competition to the local marketplace?

In health care there is no competition, there’s just rivalry, Zwarensteyn pointed out. 

He said competition is the term that’s used, but it’s a misnomer. Until hospitals start advertising $39.95 weekend specials, satisfaction guaranteed, competition isn’t really practiced.

A person inquiring as to the cost of caring for his condition would likely be told it all depends on whether or not he has complications and on what course of action his doctor recommends.

“You don’t know what the cost is when you go in for health care; that’s one of the reasons there’s no competition. In a truly competitive market, you would know about costs.”

Might both hospitals, perhaps, be gearing up for an increase in the number of cancer cases expected with the growth and ageing of the U.S. population in the decades ahead?

Yes and no, Zwarensteyn said.

“As the population ages, you have something else that’s occurring, and that’s what’s going on across the street at the Van Andel Institute and other locations around the country.”

He said researchers are making tremendous gains in understanding cancer.

Hopefully, he added, research will find other ways of handling the disease that won’t require all the weaponry that it takes to fight cancer today.

Until then, he said, cancer is still the second most common killer; it’s everywhere in our society.

And communities have to have the facilities, the equipment and personnel to treat it.

“Should they be in modern new facilities as opposed to current facilities?” he asked.

“Why not, if we consolidate and get efficiency and convenience and so forth? If the efficiency factor is there and we can drive down costs, that alone would be a good reason to support this.”

But as the facilities are currently proposed, they don’t represent anything brand new, Zwarensteyn said.  

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