TAMPA — It might seem that the $75 million expansion of St. Joseph's Women's Hospital will create private suites that serve the families of premature babies more than the babies themselves.
The expansion, which includes a massive overhaul of the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, will give parents of tiny babies born as early as 23 weeks full bathrooms, wireless Internet service and sleeper sofas.
But doctors say the private suites are really about giving these children, often smaller than a palm, an even better shot at survival, providing them with a more peaceful environment during their most critical stages.
"Within 10 years I think it will be almost the exclusive model of care," said James Padbury, pediatrician in chief at Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, part of Brown University's med school and a national neonatal expert.
The five-story, 125,000-square-foot hospital expansion will include 64 suites in the neonatal unit. Currently, premature babies are housed in 50 beds in a space meant for 42. They are clustered in rooms of six or eight, which allow nurses and doctors to keep a close eye on them. But it doesn't give parents much privacy or space to visit or bond with their children.
"Here, they have a brand new baby that they have to leave in the hands of medical experts," hospital spokeswoman Lisa Patterson said. "Now, they have a room where they can sleep and freshen up."
Padbury, whose hospital underwent a similar expansion last fall, said the new rooms will also reduce the amount of chaotic light and sound that can disrupt babies' sleep and early neurological development.
"It seems like it's all about touchy feely (changes) and parent satisfaction, but it's not," he said.
Concerns about doctors and nurses being less able to monitor the babies in private rooms have been allayed by high-tech monitoring systems and communication devices.
"We think that robust electronics is one of the ways to overcome the question about isolation and safety," he said.
Private suites also cut down on the chances of infections and identification errors among babies.
Besides the neonatal unit, the expansion will add 24 adult rooms and space for future growth to the hospital at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near N MacDill Avenue.
It will double the size of the women's hospital's breast cancer center and include comprehensive scanning services such as CT scans, digital mammography, MRI and ultrasounds.
The project was driven by trends in prenatal care, as well as the growing number of patients and preterm deliveries St. Joseph's Women's Hospital handles.
The hospital has seen its number of preterm patients grow at about 4 to 5 percent each year to almost 800 annually, Patterson said.
According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, the percentage of infants born preterm or with low birth weights declined slightly in 2007 after several decades of steady increases. The percentage of infants born preterm in 2007 was 12.7 percent, down from 12.8 percent in 2006.
Kimberly Guy, chief operating officer of St. Joseph's Women's Hospital, attributes the overall growth to medical and technological advancements that increase the survival rates of babies born prematurely, as well as surges in older women giving birth.
"We are seeing a more high-risk population," Guy said.
St. Joseph's Women's Hospital ranks second in the state in baby deliveries with more than 7,100 born at the hospital in 2009, hospital officials said. (Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando is No. 1.)
The expansion, which began last week, is expected to be completed in 18 months. Upon completion, the hospital will have a total of 219 rooms, one for every patient — adult or child.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.