updated 8/18/2004 12:02:59 PM ET 2004-08-18T16:02:59

Greeters direct new arrivals at the elevators. Wireless telephone systems and Internet access are available. And every guest room is private, cheerful and with a fold-out chairbed.

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Hospital or hotel?

It’s a hospital, and the patient-comfort and high-tech features at the just-opened South Jersey Regional Medical Center in Vineland define the dramatically different design of 21st-century hospitals.

“We’ve used light, space (and) single rooms to really create a conducive environment to treating patients,” said Chet Kaletkowski, chief executive officer of South Jersey Healthcare.

The system consolidated three older hospitals into a new one, located about 30 miles southeast of Philadelphia, with specialized care areas such as surgery, cancer and heart treatment.

New technology, better food
Many of the other hospitals opening around the country are also designed to promote faster healing, prevent medical errors, increase efficiency and meet the rising demand and expectations of aging baby boomers.

Rick Wade, a senior vice president at the American Hospital Association, said that during the prosperous mid-1990s, when financing was readily available, hospitals started planning the current projects.

Besides replacing outdated buildings that can’t be wired for new technology, he said, hospitals also are trying to comply with stricter federal privacy laws, creating private rooms and placing emergency room beds in between walls instead of curtains.

Thanks to suggestions from staff and others, standardized layouts and equipment in each room at South Jersey Regional Medical Center mean patients rarely will be moved as they heal or get sicker. Wireless phones for staff have eliminated overhead paging systems.

Laptop computers stationed just outside each patient room save nurses and doctors time as they check on lab tests or entering vital signs after examining patients. Pneumatic tubes zip blood and urine samples to labs for testing.

Patient registration is done by phone in advance or, for urgent patients, at the bedside after they are admitted. Labor and delivery suites have whirlpool bathtubs for patients and, for family members, leather sofas and armoires holding big televisions.

There’s also technology to make the food better: It’s flash frozen after preparation, then, on the patient floor, each tray is put inside a device that heats the entree on one side and leaves salad chilled.

“We didn’t want to come into a new hospital and do things the way we did before,” Kaletkowski said.

Building boom
The Vineland hospital was the second brand-new one to open in New Jersey since May, when the Jersey City Medical Center replaced “an FDR-era building that was antiquated,” said New Jersey Hospital Association spokeswoman Kerry McKean Kelly.

Nationwide, experts predict $12 billion to $25 billion will be spent on hospital construction each year for the next decade, up from $9.5 billion in 1999.

Market forecaster Reed Construction Data-RSMeans says more than 800 U.S. hospitals are planned in the next several years.

And Robert Murray, chief economist at data company McGraw-Hill’s construction division, said the number of new hospital projects starting in 2004 was 265, up from 254 last year.

Slightly more than half the new hospital construction involves completely new buildings, a big shift from the 1990s, when most spending was on additions or renovations.

“We are essentially rebuilding the infrastructure of our health care system,” said Robert Levine, vice president of Turner Healthcare, a major builder of health facilities. “It’s the strongest construction market that I’ve ever seen (in 40 years) in health care.”

Turner Healthcare has jumped from building one or two new hospitals a year to 15 or 20. A survey it conducted this year found that more than two-thirds of hospital executives said their top concerns are reducing costs and maintaining quality.

Patient safety key
At the new St. Joseph’s Community Hospital being built in West Bend, Wis., quality and patient safety were so key to the design that aerospace and industrial safety experts, plus staff and community residents, were consulted during planning, said spokeswoman Janet Ford.

All rooms are private with sinks handy to prevent infections. Patient bathrooms are next to the bed to prevent falls. And every medication, supply, staff badge and patient ID bracelet is bar-coded to prevent mistakes.

Kaiser Permanente, which owns 28 hospitals in California, will build 18 or 19 new ones over the next 10 years — five or six in high-growth areas and the rest replacement hospitals because a state law requires hospitals to soon withstand collapse in an earthquake and, by 2030, to remain operational after one.

The not-for-profit company, which also has an 8.2 million-member HMO, used its own data and outside experts to improve design, from bigger operating and emergency rooms to improved infection control and built-in flexibility for future technology, said spokesman Bob Eisenman.

“It is more expensive, but we believe it’s better for the patients,” he said.

Better infection and medication control, private rooms big enough to let a spouse or parent stay over, larger windows with a view to nature, “healing gardens” and other comforts for patients and staff can add about 5 percent to the cost of a 300-bed hospital, said architect Derek Parker.

But Parker, co-founder of the Center for Health Design, said that cost is made up in the first year in reduced patient falls, infections, medication errors and nurse turnover. The changes add to the bottom line after that and improve patient outcomes.

Still, Parker believes not enough hospitals are going this route.

“We’re making very slow progress in improving quality and safety in our hospitals, and that’s because there’s no sense of urgency,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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