Hospital begins work on $12.9M center

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In Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s latest stride toward becoming a medical destination, the hospital system has begun construction on a $12.9 million Digestive Health Institute.

Program Director Dr. Nicholas Costrini said that by this time next year, Kalispell Regional hopes to open the doors to the two-story, 28,216-square-foot building centered on digestive primary and specialty care.

“This building is going to be at the front of the hospital, the idea is to take [digestive health] from the back burner physically and to put it as a front issue, a leading issue,” Costrini said.

Construction for the project kicked off this summer at 320 Sunnyview Lane, next to the HealthCenter. The facility will offer patient evaluation and follow-up clinic space on the first floor and diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopy suites on the second.

The institution already has the funds needed to wrap up the project, in part with dollars coming from The HealthCenter — a joint effort of local physicians and Kalispell Regional.

While the new building isn’t set for completion until next August, Lynn Andenoro, with the institute, said the hospital has worked to build the program for two years. She said the team now includes 10 providers in adult gastroenterology and three pediatric providers.

Andenoro said that until the recent efforts, the department struggled to meet the valley’s needs.

“For our community size and regional reach, we didn’t have enough physicians,” she said. “We had long wait times for patients to get in.”

A long wait meant roughly three to four months. With the increased staff, Andenoro said people are typically getting into appointments in one to two weeks.

While the wait has gone down, the number of people receiving care has increased. The department tends to see roughly 100 patients a day and receives about 400 calls from people with questions or who hope to book an appointment. Andenoro said two years ago, those numbers were at least half that.

Costrini said the project was one of the major goals former Kalispell Regional Chief Executive Officer Velinda Stevens had before her death earlier this year. Stevens died of cancer in January after continuing to run the system while living with the disease for years.

“One of the reasons Velinda Stevens did this — who was the heart and soul of getting this off the ground — is because Montana has several significant issues that make it underserved statewide,” Costrini said.

He said the state lacks gastroenterologists, meaning already limited providers are trying to serve a population stretched over a large landscape. Simultaneously, Montana ranks 49th in the state for colon cancer screening and second highest in the nation for pregnant women with Hepatitis C.

“And we’re facing an aging population, a rising incidence of colon cancer in young people, the incidence of pancreatic cancer is going up in the elderly,” Costrini said. “In order to prevent these diseases, we need very strong care programs.”

But before plans could begin, Stevens had to find a person to design, direct and grow a state of the art digestive health institute — which is why Costrini received a call.

At the time he was working in Georgia but was willing to move to help design the facility.

“We’re looking for people who aren’t afraid to build something from scratch, as opposed to the institutions where they want you to be a brick in the wall that’s already established,” Costrini said.

He said the new medical team is unique in that the providers have a sub-specialty focuses, from pediatric care to liver disease. The nurses tending to digestive health patients will also receive training for digestive health.

He said the institute also hopes to develop a point of entry for patients facing chronic pain to connect with The Montana Center of Wellness and Pain Management.

Another major component of the institute will be education, for the staff and for people seeking a career in digestive health.

Costrini has 17 lectures booked this year around the state to update doctors on the most common type of digestive ailments and when an issue needs specialty care.

Another component of the institute’s education goals is ensuring the public doesn’t wait to receive care if something feels off. The institute doctors travel to clinics in places like Cut Bank, Eureka and Polson. The pediatric program also travels to Missoula, Helena, Anaconda, Great Falls and Bozeman.

Costrini said the department’s outreach is an example that the institute is looking to fill needs on a statewide scale.

“And it’s not going to be functioning in a vacuum,” Costrini said. “It is going to be functioning with a state of the art intensive care unit, a brand new emergency room, a robust cancer specialist surgical program,” he said. “GI was the next step.”

For more information, visit https://www.krh.org/hcnw/clinics/digestive-health-institute-of-montana/about-us.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

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