Health care facilities are not exempt from the constant struggle to keep pace with the demands of the Bakken oil boom. Patient loads at some western North Dakota clinics and hospitals have more than tripled in the past three years as the boom has drawn a historic number of people to the region, leaving organizations strapped for staff and space.

Many facilities are also calling for additional specialties not previously necessary at their locations as they adapt to new demands associated with an industry prone to specific injuries. Housing affects health care providers as well, and organizations continue to require additional housing units to shelter new workers.

Despite the challenges, health care organizations are managing to expand and improve services in places including Dickinson, Watford City, Tioga and Williston, and leaders say workforce and housing shortages won’t deter them from providing services needed in those communities.

“These aren’t bad things in any way,” said Craig Lambrecht, president of Sanford Health in Bismarck. “We’re in legendary times in western North Dakota. It’s just a matter of positioning ourselves so we’re part of that infrastructure and recognize the challenges and take them on. This is a great opportunity.”

Sanford is constructing a $30 million “super clinic” in Dickinson. The clinic is expected to open in February, ahead of schedule, and will replace Sanford’s current clinic, which Lambrecht said is outdated and too small.

“The building we’re in now is a very tired building,” he said. “It does not have enough space for us to support the medical needs of the community or our own providers.”

At 80,000 square feet, the new clinic will be nearly triple the size of the current facility. The clinic will also be on the fast-growing west side of Dickinson, as opposed to the current location near the center of town, to better support the community’s growing population, Lambrecht said.

While the clinic is set to open earlier than expected, it seems it can’t open soon enough. The current clinic saw 210 patients in one day in October, setting a record for the clinic, Lambrecht said.

“And we only anticipate that that’s going to increase as far as patient volume access,” he said.

When the new facility opens, it will house 18 to 20 doctors and support specialty services including cardiology, orthopedic surgery and cancer care. Lambrecht said Sanford will also continue to provide various specialty services as needed throughout western North Dakota. Specifically, he said, the organization’s occupational medicine program has been communicating with 17 counties throughout the region to better meet the needs of employees and employers.

Between the expanded facility, specialty service outreach and the organization’s new same-day service policy, Lambrecht said Sanford has “a good chance” of meeting the Dickinson area’s medical needs.

It can be assumed that the larger clinic will require more employees, but Lambrecht hesitates to estimate the number of new staff members expected, noting that low unemployment, housing shortages and a lack of day care facilities make recruiting employees difficult.

“The biggest challenge we face right now in western North Dakota, and that includes Bismarck-Mandan, is workforce,” he said. “We need more workers. We have to retain the workers we have. We have salary challenges because the wages just keep escalating because the cost of living is going up.”

Hospital planned in Watford City

In Watford City, where the pace of development has reached a fever pitch, McKenzie County Healthcare Systems Inc. is also dealing with an undersized and outdated facility, according to Tucker Petersen, chief operating officer.

The current hospital sees an average of 550 patients per month, up from an average of 120 per month three years ago, he said.

Considering the increased need for emergency medical services, a population that is expected to triple within the next 15 years and a growing demand for accommodations for elderly patients, the organization determined that a new hospital, clinic and additional nursing home space are desperately needed. A needs assessment determined that an apartment building for medical workers and additional assisted living units also should be built.

A site for the new facilities was recently selected, and Petersen said a groundbreaking is expected next spring. The project cost is estimated at $55 million, and the organization is seeking $40 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $15 million from the Bank of North Dakota.

The new hospital would have the same number of beds, but would offer expanded emergency and operating room spaces as well as additional lab and radiology services. A timeline for project completion has not been determined.

The USDA’s Rural Development office has made health care in western North Dakota a priority, according to state director Jasper Schneider, and has provided more than $20 million in funding for health care facility expansions in recent months.

In August, the agency approved $8 million in financing to construct a new clinic in Tioga to better serve its rapidly growing number of patients. In 2010, the Tioga Medical Center served about 6,000 patients. This year that number is expected to be more than 24,000, according to the Rural Development office. The new, 15,000-square-foot clinic will be attached to the existing hospital and will have 16 exam rooms, six provider offices and space for outpatient education and medical records storage.

In September, the agency announced that Southwest Healthcare Services in Bowman has received $15 million to build a new hospital and clinic. The project will consolidate separate hospital and clinic facilities under one roof in a 59,000-square-foot facility, which will feature 10 inpatient beds, 24-hour emergency care and other services. It will be attached to an existing long-term care center, which provides ample parking and the potential for future development, the agency said. The new facility is expected to be complete in 2015.

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