To meet rising demand, UAB emergency room begins $73 million expansion

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The current entrance to UAB's emergency department along 18th Avenue South.

UAB University Relations

For years, Alabama health care providers have battled the COVID-19 pandemic, struggled to hire and retain staff, and faced rising costs. That’s helped create a bottleneck at the doors of UAB’s emergency department. 

“We’ve seen hospitals throughout the state closing,” said UAB Health System CEO Dawn Bulgarella. “We’ve seen them closing hospital beds and closing emergency room bays. We are then, by default, taking on more and more of that volume.”

In the past five years, UAB’s ED has seen a 20% increase in patient load and officials expect that growth to continue. To keep up with demand, the hospital is undertaking a $73 million expansion that will roughly double treatment capacity within the ED. 

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey called the expansion an “investment in vital public services for our state,” with lawmakers recently allocating $50 million in state funds towards the project. 

Bulgarella said roughly half of the ED patients visiting UAB reside outside of the Birmingham metropolitan area, and many of these patients need an increasingly higher level of care. 

“Patients are sicker because we’re getting older,” Bulgarella said. “We’ve got a great number of patients that don’t have a traditional primary care provider. So they don’t know they’re sick until they have a need to go to the emergency room.”

As a level one trauma center, UAB regularly treats about a third of the state’s trauma victims, and Bulgarella said the hospital has also seen an increase in these types of injuries, including gunshot wounds and car accidents. 

The ED expansion will yield 59 new exam rooms, with renovations to the first floor of the hospital’s north pavilion and construction of a three-story space to replace the existing drop-off drive. 

Beginning next month, hospital staff will use two mobile units for temporary treatment space while work is ongoing, located outside of the ED along 18th Avenue South. Bulgarella said UAB aims to minimize disruptions for staff and visitors. 

“When a patient comes in for the emergency department, they’re still going to come in through the same front door and we’re going to place those patients into an appropriate treatment space,” she said. “So they may or may not notice a difference.” 

Bulgarella said new construction should begin in early 2024 and last up to three years. 

Editor’s note: UAB holds WBHM’s license, but our news and business departments operate independently. 

 

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