By Bill Kirk
The Andover Surgery Center recently spent more than $1 million renovating and doubling the size of its Doctors Park offices.
Caritas Holy Family Hospital in Methuen is spending millions to install a linear accelerator to more precisely treat cancerous tumors. Lawrence General Hospital is investing in the treatment of heart disease, stroke and breast cancer.
And Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill has spent more than $8 million in radiology equipment, including a state-of-the-art digital mammography system.
Across the Merrimack Valley, hospitals and health care providers are investing millions of dollars in the future — a place where an aging population will be putting greater demands on medical services.
"It's a combination of aging baby boomers and people living longer," said Stephanie Chalupka, a nursing professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "It's not just a bubble of people turning 60 or older, though. We have a bubble of people living into their 90s or later."
Local hospitals are already seeing the effects in their waiting rooms, operating rooms and recovery rooms.
"Over the past four years, we've seen an increase in the Medicare population — those people 65 and over — going up from 39.4 percent in 2004 to 41.4 percent in 2007," said Jeff Hughes, the new vice president of business development at Holy Family.
Hughes said the "age wave," as some call it, is more pronounced in Massachusetts because the population of the state is disproportionately older. That's because retirees are staying here while younger people are moving out.
The net result is a higher concentration of older patients needing care for everything from heart attacks to knee replacements.
"As the population ages, the technology to diagnose and treat is evolving as well," said Hughes, 50.
In response, Caritas Holy Family continues to invest in its orthopedic services, recently opening a new bone and joint center.
The hospital also continues working to recruit new physicians — it now has 1,500 employees, including 400 physicians on staff. Together, they treat about 200,000 patients a year, with about 11,400 being admitted to the hospital for at least one overnight stay.
That number is expected to continue rising, so Caritas Holy Family is investing not only in orthopedics but also in a digital mammography machine and a bone densitometer, which "allows you to assess the integrity of bones in women suffering from osteoporosis."
The hospital is also investing in oncology services, at least partly with an eye toward the aging population.
"Cancer more often than not afflicts older people," Hughes said, noting that the hospital is installing a state-of-the-art linear accelerator called Trilogy that is "minimally invasive and creates a more focused beam, which is less disruptive to surrounding tissue when irradiating a tumor."
Plans are also in the works for a new emergency room.
Michael Collins, the CEO at Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill, said competition and health insurance costs are also driving change in the local health care industry.
The hospital has spent $8 million in the last year and a half to buy high-end radiology equipment to keep up with other medical facilities in the Valley.
"We're completely digital," Collins said. "We don't do film anymore."
The digital revolution improves efficiency; doctors can look at images of CT-scans or chest X-rays from remote locations on their laptops.
The hospital also has a 64-slice CT-scan, which improves the quality of the images so physicians can more easily see bleeding on the brain or blockages in the arteries of the heart. But, he added, "everyone in the Valley has a 64-slice CT-scan."
"There's no distinct advantage in technology between the hospitals," he said. "There is some difference in service."
More important, he said, are the trends he's seeing in patient flow.
"The increases I've seen are 1 to 2 percent in radiology, 3 percent in in-patient, and 5 to 10 percent increases in outpatient visits," he said.
That's a trend driven by health insurers.
"In the past, after heart surgery you were in the hospital 10 days. Now, it's three days," he said. "After knee surgery, in the past it was three to four days. Now, it's three to four hours."
Technology, meanwhile, allows hospitals to focus more on preventive medicine and early detection.
"With early detection of breast cancer using digital mammography, it's a little quicker, easier, and can detect cancers earlier," he said.
Preventive medicine is the mantra at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, headquartered in a Mediterranean-style office building at 34 Haverhill St.
CEO Robert Ingala said the nonprofit realized that the number of women over 40 who were visiting its four clinics in the city was increasing. In recent years, the number went from 6,400 to 8,500.
"We quickly realized the need for a mammography lab," he said.
Ingala and his team sought grants, landing significant contributions from the Avon Breast Cancer Foundation and local athletic shoe manufacturer New Balance, among other private and public sources.
Last year, the medical center opened its $350,000 New Balance Mammography Center, offering women from Lawrence and surrounding communities the latest in digital technology for early detection of cancer.
Now that the health center has a mammography lab, as does Lawrence General Hospital and other medical facilities, the wait for a mammogram has gone down from four months to just two weeks in the region.
Meanwhile, the wait for follow-up visits has all but disappeared, said Joseph McManus, who has been CEO of Lawrence General Hospital for 25 years.
"If something shows up on a mammography screening, you can have the follow-up tomorrow," McManus said. He attributes that to the increased investment in technology taking place at hospitals throughout the valley.
Lawrence General for example, has invested not only in additional mammography technology but also in cardiology and stroke treatments — all a result of its focus on the aging population.
A recent collaboration with Caritas Holy Family Hospital to bring advanced angioplasty treatment to people suffering from heart attacks will save 40 to 80 lives a year between the two hospitals, he said.
The hospital is also investing in monitoring patient health, having recently expanded the number of beds in its cardiac monitoring unit from 18 to 30.
It's not just hospitals that are expanding service.
The Andover Surgery Center in Doctors Park on Haverhill Street just completed an expansion that doubled the size of the outpatient facility while adding more recovery beds for its two operating rooms.
Executive Director Nancy Aucoin said the center, which had been owned by Lawrence General Hospital for many years, was purchased by a group of physicians five years ago. The group invested in the latest in operating room technology for outpatient procedures, including arthroscopic knee surgeries, colonoscopies and cosmetic surgery.
Last year, the group embarked on a $1 million expansion program, which included buying an adjacent condominium unit and growing from 5,500 square feet to a 10,500 square feet.
"We did a major facelift," Aucoin said, noting that baby boomers are a growing part of the center's population base.
The center now performs 2,700 surgeries a year but hopes to expand that to 5,000 by the end of this year.
One of the popular procedures is cosmetic eye surgery to remove the excess skin on the eyelids that sometimes impairs the vision of the aging.