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SSM Health Opening New Hospital Despite Coronavirus Pandemic Obstacles

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   August 31, 2020

Opening a new hospital during a pandemic involves several difficulties, including staff training with infection prevention measures in place.

How do you open a new hospital in the middle of a deadly pandemic?

That has been the challenge faced at St. Louis-based SSM Health, which is set to open SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital on Sept. 1. The new $550 million, 802,000 square foot facility has been in the works for five years.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has created several hurdles for the project, says Kelly Baumer, MBA, vice president of clinical services at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital.

Training more than 2,000 staff to occupy the new academic medical center during the pandemic was particularly vexing, she says.

"Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had plans for how we were going to train masses of people. When the pandemic became a reality for us and we still needed to get all of these people trained, we had to reconsider how we were going to do training because we could not have large groups of people in classrooms. We moved as much of our training as possible to virtual training."

Baumer says there is a wide range of training needs when opening a new hospital, including learning about physical plant features such as oxygen shut-off valves, practicing patient evacuation plans, and training physicians and nurses how to use new equipment.

"There is also training for workflows. We put teams together over the past couple of years to design playbooks for the various departments. The playbooks define how employees will function in their new spaces. We had to take staff members to the new facility and let them role play with the new workflows. We had to walk through the work processes and walk through how patients enter the facility," she says.

The workflow training and staff tours of the new facility had to be broken down into multiple small groups for infection control safety, Baumer says. "Everybody had to wear masks, social distance, and practice good hand hygiene."

In addition to altering training plans, SSM Health had to make changes to waiting rooms and workspaces, she says. To promote social distancing, some furniture was removed from waiting rooms and changes were made to crowded work areas. "In some areas of the hospital, several people work together sitting close to each other. We have installed Plexiglas so staff can work safely in their normal workspaces."

The pandemic made it impossible to have celebration events with crowds, Baumer says. "We have a lot of excitement in our community and among our staff, but we couldn't have traditional ribbon cuttings because we couldn't have large groups of people present. We looked at what kinds of celebrations we could do virtually but still maintain the excitement."

Hospital designed for infectious disease emergencies

The new hospital has features that are designed to cope with infectious disease outbreaks, she says.

"We have gone through earlier outbreaks such as Ebola and H1N1; so, as an academic medical center, we are constantly thinking about infectious diseases. The design of the new facility includes having separate areas of the hospital if we need to quarantine some patients. We have areas in our emergency department and some of the patient floors where we can isolate patients."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many hospitals across the county have struggled to have enough patient care space with negative air pressure to avoid the airborne spread of the novel coronavirus. SSM Health's new hospital has extensive negative pressure capabilities, Baumer says.

"This new facility has a very sophisticated building automation system, so we can make several areas of the hospital negative pressure relatively easily. It's not only patient rooms that need to have negative pressure but also operating rooms and the morgue area. In the new facility, we can have all of those things in place."

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: On Aug. 23, the new SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital was blessed and dedicated. Photo courtesy of SSM Health


SSM Health is set to open a new $550 million hospital this week.

The health system had planned to train staff members in classrooms for the move to the new facility, but it had to conduct most training virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The new hospital has features that are designed to cope with infectious disease outbreaks such as a sophisticated building automation system that can create negative air pressure in many areas of the facility.

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