An addition to Northern Light's Mercy Hospital in Portland under construction on Monday. Personnel will move into the new development in the fall. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Light Health

Northern Light Health is planning or working on overhauls at half of its 10 hospitals across the state, with recent announcements for new or updated facilities following a year during which the Brewer-based hospital system lost tens of millions of dollars.

The hospital system is in varying stages of updating Acadia Hospital in Bangor, its hospital in Blue Hill, Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth, C.A. Dean Hospital in Greenville and Mercy Hospital in Portland.

After more than a year of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, including treating patients as the virus surged in the winter of 2021 and opening mass vaccination sites in the spring, Northern Light is applying many of the lessons it learned during the pandemic to the building overhauls, including the need for patient privacy and expanded digital health care capabilities.

“Although it may have slowed things down by a few months, we’re going to end up with a much better product,” said Tim Doak, Northern Light’s head of facilities, planning, design and construction.

Work at all the facilities except Mercy is pending a vote by Northern Light’s board of directors expected in March 2022.

Construction would begin in April 2022 if approved by the board and take 10 months for Maine Coast and 15-18 months for Acadia, where the system is planning overhauls, including the addition of private patient rooms. Work at Blue Hill and C.A. Dean, where Northern Light plans to replace the buildings, would take 18 months, along with two months to remove the old buildings.

Enhanced telehealth infrastructure, including better internet, video cameras, audio equipment and software at all of the facilities is one development to grow out of the pandemic. Telehealth is not just about patient interactions with their providers, but also allowing Northern Light doctors to consult specialists from across the country.

The creation of several new private patient rooms also comes from the lessons of COVID-19. Shared patient rooms provide less privacy and can increase the chance of disease spreading between patients. Patients resoundly support such changes, Doak said.

Most of the projects have been announced a year after the COVID-19 pandemic led to losses across the health care industry due to the cancellation of non-essential medical procedures during the pandemic’s first months.

The pandemic has caused other hospitals nationwide to scale back construction projects because of revenue losses.

Philanthropy will play an important part in the funding for each of these efforts, Doak said. He said he had been encouraged by early funding, especially for the new hospitals at Blue Hill and C.A. Dean.

New developments like these typically take two to five years between when planning begins and the site becomes operational, Doak said.

That is why the work at Mercy Hospital is by far in the most advanced stage. Officials began working on it four years ago, Doak said, about three years after Northern Light acquired the facility.

The changes to Mercy will consolidate the hospital’s two campuses on State Street and Fore River Parkway into one on Fore River. A 50,000-square-foot addition to the hospital will add an emergency department and new patient rooms. There will also be a new 35,000-square-foot outpatient surgery center that will also host an endoscopy practice. The final product will also feature an outpatient and inpatient imaging center on that one campus.

Personnel will move into the new developments in the fall.

Other projects will take longer to come to fruition. The new birthing center at Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth is currently in its design phase and likely won’t open until late 2022 or early 2023. The addition of private rooms at Acadia Hospital, the most recently announced of all the improvements, will take a few years as well.

Northern Light’s Blue Hill location and C.A. Dean Hospital in Greenville will be wholly rebuilt and replaced by facilities with a smaller footprint. The cost of renovating both would exceed the cost of construction, Doak said. Each building is quite old. The oldest section of C.A. Dean was built more than 100 years ago.

“It has served us well, but it’s pretty old and tired,” Doak said.

The smaller design for the new hospitals is intentional, Doak said. Advances in technology, including the decreased likelihood of hospital stays after medical procedures, allows for a more efficient building.

The new C.A. Dean will also feature a helipad. The current hospital only features an H painted on the back parking lot pavement.

The smaller size will also be possible because many of the hospitals’ support staff, who don’t physically interact with patients, will work from home.

“We’ve really embraced the work-from-home model,” Doak said. “We’re finding in most cases that our staff can be just as efficient, and in some cases more efficient, working from home.”