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FREESTANDING EMERGENCY ROOM PLANNED

The facility would be closer than a hospital for many in Pinellas.

People who live in the middle of Pinellas County have to drive too far to get to an emergency room, say officials at Pinellas County's largest hospital.

Their solution: open a new emergency department, one of few such facilities in Florida.

The Bardmoor Emergency Center, at Starkey and Bryan Dairy roads, will have 15 emergency beds. Those come with emergency doctors, X-rays and other imaging, lab testing and a pharmacy.

Not included: a hospital. Patients who need to be admitted will be transferred.

"You know how densely populated that area is," said John Couris, a vice president for Morton Plant Mease Health Care, which is planning the facility. "It can take quite some time to get to an emergency room."

In the mid 1990s, Couris said, three community hospitals closed in the midcounty area.

"It really left a void for some care," he said.

Morton Plant Mease plans to open the $9-million center in March.

Florida's third freestanding emergency center opened just this week near Miami Beach. It's the first to open since 2003. All three are run by nearby hospitals.

The first, the Emergency Center at Timber Ridge, opened in 2002. A second opened in Destin the next year.

After that, state legislators put a moratorium on building ones while studying the issue. Last year, legislators tried to extend the ban, but Gov. Charlie Crist overturned it.

Now, a handful of freestanding centers are in the works. Plans are under way for centers in Sarasota and in Brevard County.

In Pasco County, Community Hospital could leave a freestanding emergency center behind when it moves from New Port Richey to Trinity. South Bay Hospital plans to do the same in Sun City Center when it moves the main hospital to Big Bend Road.

The question is whether such centers offer quality care. In Miami, the new Mount Sinai center has drawn critics, with an ambulance service saying it won't take patients there.

But in Pinellas, ambulance service will treat the Bardmoor center much like a community hospital, said Chuck Kearns, county director of emergency medical services. Patients with serious injuries will be taken to a trauma center; those with heart attack symptoms needing cardiac catheterization will be taken directly to one of those facilities.

But a patient whose heart has stopped will be taken to the nearest emergency room - and that could be Bardmoor, Kearns said.

"We are going to be taking ambulance patients there just like we would other hospitals," Kearns said.

The American College of Emergency Physicians is working on a policy for what standards stand-alone centers should follow, said Dr. Ronald A. Hellstern, a member of the group's practice management and policy committee.

"These facilities should be prepared for all the possible patients that could show up," Hellstern said.

The Bardmoor center will be ready to do that, said Kelly Triolo, director of nursing and patient care services for Morton Plant Mease.

"We're equipped like any other emergency department to see and stabilize patients," she said.

The biggest difference, Triolo said, is that the Bardmoor center won't have to compete with other hospital patients to use imaging and lab facilities. That means Bardmoor "will be a lot quicker," she said.

Meanwhile, in Ocala, leaders at Munroe Regional Medical Center have learned one lesson about the state's oldest stand-alone emergency center, said Helen Dalton, vice president and chief nursing officer there. They built 12 beds, but 16 may have been better.

"We're already asking ourselves, 'Do we need more beds out there?'" she said.

Lisa Greene can be reached at lgreene@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

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