Salem Health opens new hospital tower, adding 150 beds

Hannah Bauer, facilities development project consultant for Salem Health, leads a tour of a patient wing in the hospital’s new tower on Tuesday, June 28 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Years ago, as Salem Health leaders began planning for the expansion of their flagship hospital, an administrator had some feedback.

She’d recently been hospitalized and was frustrated because the shower in her room didn’t have anywhere to put soap or shampoo, forcing her to bend down to the floor.

A shower shelf in bathrooms is just one of the upgrades patients and employees at Salem Hospital will see on July 14, when the first patients receive care in a new 150-bed, 203,000 square foot tower. The space was designed with feedback from hospital workers in mind to make providing care easier and hospital stays more comfortable, said Sarah Horn, Salem Health’s chief nursing officer, during a media tour Tuesday.

Planning on the project began in 2017 as hospital leaders looked ahead to the Salem area’s demographic trends. The population in Marion and Polk counties is growing, and the share of residents over 65 is also climbing as the large Baby Boomer generation retires.

“As people get older, they need care, and they need to care more often and frequently and those who are of younger age,” Horn said.

In the next 20 years, the Salem area’s population is expected to rise by 30%, with the population of 60 to 80-year-olds rising 50%, Horn said. Those numbers come from a hospital analysis based on data from Portland State University’s Population Research Center.

The junction between Salem Hospital’s original Building A, right, and the new five-story tower with 150 beds, opening in July 2022, left (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The expansion has been under construction since early 2020 and was completed on time and on budget despite the challenges of the pandemic, recent inflation and construction cost escalations.

Construction of the new tower and seismic improvements to the hospital’s emergency parking garage totaled $235 million, Horn said. 

Prior to the pandemic, the hospital was routinely near its capacity of 494 patients, and operated the busiest emergency room on the West Coast between San Diego and Canada, with about 100,000 patient visits per year.

Those challenges have only escalated since the pandemic. Over the past year, the hospital has routinely been over its bed capacity, seeing patients who are more seriously ill because they delayed care for chronic conditions during pandemic case surges. Staffing shortages and Covid outbreaks at nursing facilities have also meant more people who no longer need hospital-level medical care remaining in the hospital because there’s nowhere to discharge them.

Because of the higher patient numbers the hospital is seeing, Salem Health leaders spent another $10 million to get a fifth floor of the new patient tower outfitted to open immediately, rather than just opening four as originally planned. The addition brought the total project cost to $245 million.

Horn said initially, the hospital will move patients from its older Building B into the new tower. Building B’s seven patient units will be remodeled, with the eventual goal of having that building serve as overflow during times when the hospital has a large number of patients.

With the new tower opening, the hospital’s licensed bed capacity will rise to 644.

That will improve patient care in other hospital areas, Horn said. Adding beds means it’s less likely someone admitted to the hospital will have to wait in the emergency room for space to free up – a practice known as “boarding.” When someone admitted to the hospital can leave the emergency department promptly, it frees up space and employees in the emergency department to care for other patients, reducing wait times.

A new patient room in Salem Hospital’s expanded Building A tower is large enough to function as an intensive care unit bed, with hookups for the medical gases needed to provide advanced care (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The new tower is designed so every room is able to function as an intensive care unit bed, Horn said, though the hospital’s existing ICU won’t move. The design gives the hospital flexibility if it has more ICU patients than can be accommodated – a challenge medical workers faced during the delta surge of Covid last summer.

Three rooms on each floor include lifts designed for heavier patients, and one of those rooms also has negative airflow so it can be used for patients with a contagious illness who need precautions to prevent airborne illness from spreading, said Hannah Bauer, Salem Health’s facilities development project consultant.

Each floor in the new tower is assigned a color so it’s easier for patients and visitors to know where they are. On the third floor, some hallway walls and signs are purple, especially near the entrance. Other floors are colored green, orange, blue or yellow.

Because the hospital won’t immediately have patients in all 150 new beds, Horn said the opening of the tower doesn’t mean Salem Health needs to hire a significant number of new employees. Like other hospitals across Oregon and the U.S., the hospital has significantly increased its reliance on contract labor to help stem staffing shortages over the past year, a change that’s also meant an increase in labor costs.

Horn said the hospital will staff the new beds using existing employees and expand its staffing gradually as patient demand grows and fills more beds.

Seismic upgrades and new screens to prevent car lights from shining into patient rooms are part of the improvements to Salem Hospital’s main parking garage as part of a new tower opening in July 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A redesigned emergency room drop-off at Salem Hospital is intended to make it easier for patients to find the entrance with bright red coloring and signs illuminated 24 hours a day. The new entrance opened in April 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A nurse’s station in Salem Hospital’s new tower, scheduled to accept its first patients in July 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A patient bathroom in Salem Hospital’s new tower, scheduled to accept its first patients in July 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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