Six stories of glass walls facing the Mississippi River and an additional 115,000 square feet, roughly the size of two football fields, greet patients at the newly expanded Gayle and Tom Benson Center on Ochsner Health System’s main campus.
The $56 million expansion, which doubles the center’s previous size, allows all of Ochsner’s cancer programs to be housed under one roof, including the Lieselotte Tansey Breast Center, which was moved from across Jefferson Highway. The central location will ease the burden of treatment for cancer patients who need to see multiple specialists such as dieticians, surgeons, psychologists, social workers and nurse navigators.
“We can address everything a cancer patient needs in this one building,” said Dr. Brian Moore, a head and neck cancer surgeon and director of the Ochsner Cancer Institute. “You don’t have to bounce between physician offices across town. You don’t even have to bounce across campus. All the doctors you need to see are right here.”
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With this in mind, dedicated patient rooms that feel more like small offices than clinical examination rooms have been built to discuss patient care in a more comfortable setting. Modern cushioned benches rather than plastic chairs await patients who need to meet with someone on their care team but don’t need an examination.
While patients receive infusions of cancer-fighting drugs that often have unpleasant side effects, they can look out at passing barges on the river or watch television on personal devices from a cushioned chair tucked into a cubicle-like nook.
A special treatment space has been added for bone marrow transplant patients, whose immune systems are particularly vulnerable. That infusion area uses a positive pressure air system so that air flows out but not in, keeping out airborne pathogens.
The new infusion area also has a private treatment room for cancer patients who also are battling infectious illness.
A dedicated room for acupuncture, shown to help cancer patients with symptoms such as nausea, will house Ochsner’s first-ever acupuncturist.
“We know how important the entire cancer patient and their support system is in treating their cancer,” said Emily Pirch, vice president of Ochsner cancer services. “It’s not just about the clinical care; there’s a significant impact of the mental toll.”
Room for yoga, support groups, cooking classes and art and music therapy is also planned.
The expansion, which began in 2018, was largely funded with a $20 million gift from Gayle Benson and her late husband, Tom Benson. Donations of more than $1 million came from Paulette and Frank Stewart, Sheryl and Robert Merrick, Jackie Leonard, Stuart Smith and Barry Cooper. The rest of the money came from strategic capital investment, Pirch said.
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The expanded center has room for an additional 35 physicians. About 18,000 patients are expected to receive treatment yearly. While survival rates for cancer have improved over the last decade, health care providers anticipate a growing need.
“If you look at cancer incidence rates in the state, we’re one of the highest,” said Moore. “We’re doing a better job … of taking care of patients with cancer, so there are more cancer survivors than ever. All of these folks are still going to need to access us to come here for some part of their care.”
Louisiana ranks sixth of all states for number of cancer deaths, according to a 2019 report from America’s Health Rankings. And doctors said a lapse in routine screenings due to the coronavirus pandemic this year could lead to a concerning public health problem that might reverse progress.
“What we’re worried about now is an epidemic of delayed cancer diagnoses and advanced cancer that’s going to start to hit us now and into the next year,” Moore said. “We’re going to be dealing with the ramifications of deferred or delayed care for years. These are preventable deaths and preventable illnesses if you just come in and get screened.”
Another new cancer center in Covington, a partnership between Ochsner and St. Tammany Health System, is set to open next summer. The cost is projected to be $50 million.
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Health care accounts for more than 15% of Louisiana’s employment, according to a 2018 report from the Louisiana Hospital Association. Hospital transactions generate more than $31.6 billion in economic activity in the state annually.
Emily Woodruff covers public health for The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate as a Report For America corps member.