DULUTH – A robot was parked among people waiting for an elevator during a tour of the new Essentia Health hospital earlier this week. Even before he arrived, the L-shaped machine, which the team likened to a Roomba vacuum cleaner, rolled itself forward and turned to face the elevator doors.
The robot’s bed, where it carries things like fresh linens and garbage, was empty. It was just a practice exercise, but when the new facility opens to patients on July 30, a team of 24 Tug robots will be ready to perform tasks independently throughout the buildings.
“All of that is to maximize our staff’s time on the patient side,” said Dr. Robert Erickson, the lead physician for the Vision Northland project. “So we’re really looking forward to that.”
The robots are among the technological highlights of Essentia Health’s state-of-the-art 942,000-square-foot St. Mary’s Medical Center.
This week was a ceremony as the public got their first look at the earthen-shaped, mostly glass structure that has dramatically changed the Duluth cityscape. The four-year project cost $915 million – the largest private investment in the city’s history – and the process will culminate when patients and their beds are rolled through the sky and into their new rooms at the end of the month.
Effectiveness is in its own shape, which is upward more than outward. There are 18 floors with 28 smart lifts. These elevators group riders according to their destination floor, so there are fewer stops between them.
“The design element is that vertical transport, and transport of patients and materials, is more efficient than horizontal,” Erickson said.
The robots, too, are bent into the system. A food delivery run will not share space with garbage collection.
There are navigation kiosks with touchscreens that sync with a phone app, like a mall.
Essentia Health ended its designated visiting hours months ago; guests are free to come and go as they please. The new rooms are single-occupancy rooms with visitors in mind, with mini-fridges and pull-out beds. Each has an entertainment system that can run streaming services or order meals. Supply shelves are accessible from the hallway, so they can be refilled without disturbing a patient.
The rooms are standardized – everything is in the same place from unit to unit. And in the natural birth unit, medical gas hookups are hidden behind framed art in the space void of obvious medical equipment.
In the early stages of the project, 26 user groups went over the room designs to find out what should be done to make the most efficient use of space. Since then, care teams have gone through the rooms with “fine toothpicks,” to make sure they have everything they need, according to director of operations Jill Cernohous. The equipment has been tested; preparations have been made for a variety of hiccups – such as power outages.
When COVID-19 hit midway through the project, those behind Vision Northland were tasked with rethinking how to adapt for the future. The oxygen piping infrastructure has been increased, according to Dan Cebelinski, director of facilities. 100% outside air can be brought in through the tower.
The new facility is described as a 50-year-plus building, designed with flexibility in mind so that it can change with advances in medicine.
The new emergency department has 25,800 square feet of space with 40 private beds. Many of the tools needed are inside the room, including CT, X-ray and ultrasound machines. There is a high-speed elevator that will take patients arriving by helicopter directly into the emergency department.
There is also room for growth. There are five floors of space on the Superior Street side that can be used for “the clinic of the future,” Erickson said. The hospital has two floors that can be converted to an ICU in a pandemic.
After patients move from the old hospital, it will be cleaned out and likely demolished by September 2024, according to Cebelinski. The future of that property has not yet been decided.