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Essentia renovation puts focus on mental-health care

A $5 million plan to renovate the fourth floor of the former Miller-Dwan Medical Center indicates the value Essentia Health places on mental-health care, an administrator said.

“We are making the commitment to the community to take care of people with mental illness, both children and adults,” said Barb Wessberg, administrator and vice president for Essentia Health-Duluth, as Miller-Dwan now is called.

The plan, in the works since last summer and announced on Thursday, calls for an overhaul of the building’s fourth floor — the hospital’s inpatient mental health unit.

Work on the unit, which is more than 21,000 square feet, is expected to begin late this summer, Wessberg said, and take 18 months to complete. It will be done in five phases so that patients still can be cared for while work is underway, although less space will be available during one phase.

The end result will be an open, modern floor plan in place of the dated facility with long, dark corridors that currently houses the wing’s 37 beds, she said.

Large, lake-facing windows will open to the patients’ cafeteria and lounge area. Instead of being surrounded by glass and walls, the nurses’ station will have an open design, Wessberg said. An area will be set aside for patients with more severe illness or who may have aggressive behavior.

The unit hasn’t been remodeled since the mid-1990s, she said.

“It never was designed as a unit for patients with mental illness,” Wessberg said. “It was designed as a med-surgical unit.”

 The bed count will be about the same, but in practical terms only about 30 patients can be housed on the floor now, Wessberg said. That’s because there’s only one private room currently, but some at-risk patients are housed individually in rooms with two beds.

The available beds always are filled, Wessberg said, because a lack of space for mental-health affects the entire state.

“What happens when a hospital anywhere in the state can’t find a (mental-health) bed is that the patients sit in the emergency room,” she said, sometimes for days.

Every emergency department in Minnesota has access to a bed-tracking system that allows them to know where any mental-health space is available, she said.

“But quite often, there are no beds,” she said.

As a result, about 20 percent of Essentia’s mental-health patients are from outside of northern Minnesota, Wessberg said.

Eventually, additional space might be created elsewhere in the hospital, she said. That, too, would require remodeling.

The project will be the second major investment on a mental-health facility in Duluth this decade. Amberwing, the $6.2 million outpatient facility for young adults and children with mental illness and chemical dependency, opened in September 2012. It operates under the direction of Essentia Health-Duluth.

The year also marks Essentia Health-Duluth’s 80th anniversary.