U: Overcrowding calls for ambulatory clinic


The Phillips Wangensteen Building is always bustling with activity. Built almost 40 years ago, it houses about 20 clinics and is packed with patients, students and physicians — so much so that it can be hard to get through the front door sometimes.

But now, after multiple failed attempts, the University of Minnesota might get new space to meet its growing clinical demands. The Board of Regents approved a preliminary 2012 capital request July 6 that includes $100 million for a new ambulatory care clinic — the first time the clinic’s been on the request.

Six years ago, the University partnered with Fairview Health Services and University of Minnesota Physicians to try to build the center, said Kathleen O’Brien, vice president of University Services. The group shelved the plan in 2008 due to the recession and because other attempts to get alternate funding were foiled.

The University’s new plan is to match $100 million in state funding with funds from the school. Usually, state support pays for about two-thirds of capital projects, which tend to be big infrastructure endeavors.

The preliminary request included six other projects, three of which are still pending in the current legislative session, though the Legislature will not likely appropriate the funds because of the budget impasse. Those three — by now usual suspects of capital requests — include a new physics and nanotechnology building, an American Indian Learning Resource Center and improvements to the Itasca Biological Station.

The University’s contribution for the ambulatory clinic will come largely from leasing payments by Fairview and UMP, whose physicians would use part of the building, O’Brien said.

She said the limited space and outdated facilities used by current clinics showcase the need for a new building.

The current facilities are “clearly on the end of their useful life,” said UMP CEO Bobbi Daniels. The Phillips Wangensteen Building was made for 150,000 patient visits a year, she said, but these days it sees closer to 600,000.

“It’s very difficult for us to accommodate everyone who needs to come to our clinic in a timely fashion,” said Kris Strasburg, UMP vice president of clinical operations.

The space is tight, she said, and light-rail construction on Washington Avenue, which complicates easy access to the building, worsens the situation.

Daniels said a number of patients have not been showing up for their appointments. “We know by the number of patient calls that we get that our patients are very challenged to make it through the construction,” she said.

Privacy is also an issue, Strasburg said. The exam rooms are small, and some physicians have workstations in the hallway, where it can be difficult to have a private conversation with a patient.

Currently, 800 faculty members at the University’s ambulatory clinics see patients at one time or another, Daniels said.

Clinical activities bring in a “fair amount of revenue” to the Medical School, said Aaron Friedman, the school’s dean and vice president for health sciences. But he said a new clinic building is more important academically than financially.

“Those clinical facilities are necessary for us to assure the public that the people that we graduate are the people who can be doctors,” he said.

Daniels said the school hopes to move as many clinics and patients as possible into the new building, but it’s too early to say how many will get a place right now.

The project is unique because rather than starting a brand new project, the school is picking up a completed design, O’Brien said. Because four years have passed since the design’s completion, it needs to be reevaluated and adjusted, she said.

Regents will review a final version of the capital request that includes the new clinic in September and will vote in October.

O’Brien said it’s too early to speculate whether the funding will come through.