Spending time in a cancer center is low on just about everyone’s list. But cancer happens and if it happens to you or a loved one, you want the treatment done in a place that’s warm and welcoming and with luck, soon just a speck in your rearview mirror.
You want life beyond cancer to become a reality as soon as possible.
Faster diagnoses, streamlined care and expanded access were just a few of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center’s goals when leaders envisioned the new outpatient clinic building, set to open March 27 on the institution’s South Lake Union campus. They also sought to create an experience that embodied hope and uplifted peoples’ spirits.
And who better to help achieve all that than cancer patients and caregivers themselves?
“Of all the volunteer work I’ve done, this was the most rewarding,” said design team member Steve Lovell of Seattle, a former Alaska Airlines director who received a bone marrow transplant for his myelodysplastic syndrome in 2010. A member of Fred Hutch’s Patient and Family Advisory Council, or PFAC, Lovell was one of nearly 70 design team members who participated in the planning of the six-story, 150,000 square-foot building.
“There were times when we spent 40 hours a week at a warehouse down in Des Moines doing mockups of clinic rooms,” he said. “We built rooms out of cardboard and would move them around, negotiating with the other team members, showing them what we needed. Rather than just asking patients and families questions, Fred Hutch actually brought us in. We were an integral part of the clinic design team — very hands-on — and were able to convey valuable information. I think it made for a better experience for everybody.”
Bringing cancer care to the patient instead of having the patient go from floor to floor and room to room was critical, Lovell said. As was having everything patients and their caregivers might need during treatment: ample room to sit, a place to stow snacks, good cell reception.
“The layout of the clinic rooms was a big thing,” Lovell said. “Patients need a place to hang their coat, for their caregiver to sit down. You had to merge what patients and families need with what the staff needs to effectively treat the patients. The staff needs to do their job and the patients need to get well.”
And then there was the look and feel of the building itself.
“You don’t want to go into something that’s dark and dreary,” he said. “You want it to be inviting and warm. You need a lot of light coming in. This is heavy stuff we’re doing here, so let’s do it in a positive way.”
Over the months, the design team tried out 300 different iterations of a treatment floor plan before they came up with a design that would work well for all. The result?
“This is absolutely amazing,” Lovell said as he walked the airy halls of Fred Hutch’s new SLU clinic building in the weeks before the ribbon cutting. “I love it. I just love it.”
Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Thomas J. Lynch, Jr., holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair, was equally enthusiastic about the new building and its potential for accelerating the progress of bench-to-bedside therapies.
“This new state-of-the-art clinic building provides an incredible space in which to pursue our commitment to innovation in cancer care,” he said. “I’m inspired by the opportunities we have to translate new scientific discoveries into compassionate care for our patients.”
Just over a year ago, on April 1, 2022, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance became Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, a single, independent, nonprofit organization that is also a clinically integrated part of UW Medicine and UW Medicine’s cancer program. Read more about the restructure.
The cancer care won’t be any different in the new building, said Fred Hutch’s Vice President of Clinical Operations and Chief Nursing Officer Terry McDonnell, DNP, ACNP-BC. But the design of the new treatment floors should make the experience more streamlined and less time-consuming.
“Our patients and families want an expertly integrated experience and they don’t want their time wasted,” McDonnell said. “With cancer, every minute is precious.”
In the new setup, patients won’t move from floor to floor, McDonnell said. Instead, they’ll have one room that’s “theirs for the whole time they’re here.”
“They don’t have to check into a lab for a blood draw and then sit in a clinic and then go off to their infusion,” she said. “The labs [blood tests] get drawn in the room, their providers come to see them there and their infusion happens in that same room. It’s their home for the day.”
— Fred Hutch Vice President of Clinical Operations and Chief Nursing Officer Terry McDonnell
Each treatment floor will house three separate care neighborhoods — a central core where staff and clinicians work side-by-side, surrounded by a cluster of 10 universal or “flex” rooms. These rooms function as flexible “efficiency apartments” for patients (and caregivers) whenever they come in for exams, blood draws and/or infusions, with 30 rooms total on each treatment floor.
A pilot version of this model is already in use in the existing building in the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic on the sixth floor as well as on the seventh floor, where gastrointestinal cancers are currently treated.
First off, the new building (known as Building 2) won’t be opening all at once, but in stages.
The A-level (ground floor) and the third floor will open in late March and the first and fourth floor will open in April. The fifth and second floor will then open in May and June, respectively. But Fred Hutch schedulers are already making appointments; the first patients are scheduled to be seen March 27.
As with the current clinic, patients — and treatment floors — are divvied up by cancer type.
Building 2’s second floor will serve patients with thoracic; head and neck; ear, nose and throat; neuro-oncology and gastrointestinal surgery, while Floor 3 will serve gastrointestinal cancer patients and Floor 4 is for patients with genitourinary cancers and sarcomas.
The fifth floor will be dedicated to outpatient procedures with eight procedure rooms and 20 post-op rooms where patients can recover from port placement, biopsies and other outpatient procedures. The procedure suite will also include a new computed tomography (CT) angiography machine for non-invasive imaging of blood vessels, a scan which can now be performed on-site. Other imaging services, such as traditional CT scanners and mammography, will continue to be available in the existing Building 1.
The new building also holds a few surprises. For instance, no traditional waiting rooms.
Instead, every treatment floor has a roomy lake-view corridor that stretches the entire length of the building with couches, chairs, small alcoves and shielded sections for those who are especially immunocompromised. These roomy promenades, designed for additional family and friends, have replaced formal waiting rooms outside individual clinics (flex rooms currently accommodate one visitor). Each promenade comes with vending machines (including one for coffee and beverages). A larger café is located on A-level, along with the entry, main lobby and parking services.
A walkway on the first floor connects the two buildings. Restrooms are private (single stall) and gender-neutral throughout the new building. And there are two additional satellite labs.
— Cancer survivor and design team member Jason Johnson
“The number one thing was the patient flow,” said Evelyn Alexander of Edmonds, another clinic design team member who also once served on the Patient and Family Advisory Council. “When my husband was in treatment for colorectal cancer in 2015, we’d get up at 4 a.m. to get ourselves ready. Sometimes, it would still be dark when we got to the clinic and we’d be there for like six to eight hours.”
Alexander, who acted as caregiver for her husband, said they always had to wait for his blood draw on the main floor, then would go the fourth floor for his provider consult.
“That was the second wait,” she said. “From there, we would go up to infusion, the third wait. Then you’re finally called into the infusion room and you wait again for the pharmacy to deliver the drugs. All that has been eliminated by redesigning the patient flow for care. We put labs on two more floors. Also, there’s a way that the drugs are delivered a lot quicker now.”
The new clinic building also boasts new technology.
Three MRI machines will be located on Floor 1 of the new building, along with a new positron emission tomography/magnetic resonance imaging (PET/MRI) machine, a revolutionary 20,000-pound apparatus that improves the ability to detect and image tumors, make detailed diagnoses and tailor treatment for patients.
MRIs capture images of soft tissue and its morphology or structure; PET scans allow for extremely sensitive images of the body using radiopharmaceuticals, or molecular tracers, to locate and image cancer cells.
What do these new machines mean for patients? Better imaging and detection of soft tissue cancers, said Fred Hutch’s Director of Molecular Imaging and Therapy Delphine Chen, MD.
“Our new PET/MRI will be the first in the state of Washington and the second in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “The machines are known for very high-resolution imaging; it gives you better soft tissue contrast. We’re going to have really great resolution and we’ll also have the ability to gauge the effectiveness of therapies.”
The new PET/MRI will also take less time to capture the images.
“We’ll get higher quality MR images with shorter durations,” she said. “It improves the patient experience and maintains the interpretability of the MRI images. We’re really excited to have access to that.”
Medical and Breast Imaging Operations Senior Manager Bonnie Thursten said imaging services will still be available in both buildings, but they will be divvied up, with MRIs all happening on the first floor of Building 2. Mammography, she said, will also be offered on the first floor of the new building so patients who require both scans don’t have to go to two separate buildings and gown up twice.
The existing clinic will still house CT scanners, PET/CT scanners, nuclear medicine, ultrasound and X-ray on the second floor and Breast Imaging (including mammography and ultrasound) on the third floor.
“It’s all about improving the patient experience,” Thursten said, adding that Building 2’s expanded MRI suite will improve patient access and enhance their safety, their comfort and their privacy. “Your doctor will choose whichever imaging modality is the right one for you.”
Consolidating imaging services also allows for expanded radiopharmaceutical therapy, Chen added.
PET scans use radiopharmaceuticals, that is imaging tracers combining radioisotopes with tumor-binding compounds, to help determine the exact biology of cancer and predict the effectiveness of therapies. When the radioisotope on the compound is intended for therapy, the same compounds can, in some cases, enter cancer cells and destroy them.
“We’ll have more space to open our therapy service which has grown rapidly over the last few years,” Chen said. “We’re excited to consolidate our services and create efficiencies in how we deliver our treatments. Right now, we’re scattered in different locations. This will open up new space in the old building to provide outpatient nuclear medicine.”
Patient parking has also received a high-tech upgrade with a new, fully automated 160-stall parking garage. The system, built by the German firm Woehr, is the first of its kind in a non-residential setting in our region, although these space-saving systems are common in Europe and other countries. Patients can simply drop off their vehicles with a valet at the entrance to Building 2 (or continue to self-park in the existing garage under Building 1) and go to their appointments. When they’re ready to leave, a valet will retrieve their car and have it waiting outside.
The automated system, which cost roughly $8 million, eliminated the need for both elevators and ramps in the garage, allowing for the maximum parking spaces (a similar-sized traditional garage would cost far more).
Cancer survivor Jason Johnson, who went through a bone marrow transplant for chronic myeloid leukemia in 2011, helped the design team research various parking systems and even flew to Europe with team members to watch automated systems in action.
“There were a lot of things we considered from a safety perspective and from a patient perspective,” Johnson said. “Could a patient easily get into the passenger seat after chemo? Or if they’re heavily sedated? Or both? We also wanted to make sure it was convenient. How long does it take? How much of a walk is it to the elevator? Are there tripping hazards?”
Johnson said he was happy with the choice Fred Hutch made on the parking system — and especially happy he and other patients were asked to participate in the process.
“The parking garage is just one example where they brought in patients to evaluate. For every level on that floor, there has been someone like me who has been part of the design and the overall strategy of how it’s laid out.”
Lynch, Fred Hutch’s president and director, emphasized the importance of the new technology and streamlined services to help accelerate precision oncology efforts.
“This clinic expansion is just the latest example of our commitment to innovation in cancer care,” he said. “In addition to our advanced imaging capabilities, we’ll be able to take more precise biopsies that will help us learn more about our patients’ tumors, fueling our search for better treatments for them and for others in the future.”
Alexander said she’s just happy she was able to use her experience as a caregiver to help Fred Hutch provide the best possible care to its cancer patients.
“We all had the same goal — to make it better for everybody,” she said.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com. Just diagnosed and need information and resources?
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