HCMC to open new Southwest clinic

Whittier Clinic replaces the aging Family Medical Center

WHITTIER — Crowded. Cramped. Worn-looking. Prone to flooding, occasionally due to an overflowing bathtub in one of the condominiums above.

Occupying the ground floor of a mixed-use building at the intersection of Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue, Hennepin County Medical Center’s Family Medical Center is showing its age. When it moves two blocks north to 2810 Nicollet Ave. S and reopens Oct. 18 as Whittier Clinic, it will be an upgrade in more ways than one.

“We’re like sardines in a can in here,” said Hez Obermark, Family Medical Center practice manager, describing the narrow hallways and blind corners in HCMC’s lone Southwest clinic location. Patients wait for care in a stuffed, shabby looking lobby.

“Who wants to receive care in a place that is clean, from a sanitary perspective, but doesn’t look or feel clean?” Obermark asked. “That is the perception of our current facility. … The fact that our patients can see through the facility I think speaks volumes about the providers that work here and the staff that work here.”

Soon, though, patients no longer will have to look past the center’s rough edges.

Under construction since July 2009, the two-story, 59,200-square-foot Whittier Clinic is nearly three times the size of Family Medical Center and has about twice as many exam rooms. Its light-filled, environmentally conscious and modern design is a stark departure from the older facility.

It’s a building designed to attract attention and, with the addition of specialists in cardiology, orthopedics, sports medicine and other fields, an expanded patient base.

“We’re hoping to expand our current population base, and then because of the additional services here, we’ll create that … demand,” said Kelly Spratt, HCMC director for primary care at all off-site clinics.

Expansion plans

The opening of Whittier Clinic comes as HCMC is expanding its clinic presence around the Twin Cities.

When a new Brooklyn Park facility now under construction opens in November, it will bring HCMC’s total number of clinics to five, including two in Minneapolis, one in Brooklyn Center and one in Richfield. HCMC opens its second Wal-Mart-based “convenience-care clinic” Oct. 12 in Eden Prairie.

Spratt said the constellation of clinics was expected to funnel more patients into the Downtown medical center, expanding HCMC’s pool of patients and building a stronger revenue base for the entire system.

“When you look at Hennepin County Medical Center, we are very specialist-heavy and we are very light on primary care and our clinic structure, so we are looking at building a clinic system to support the medical center,” Spratt said. “And as all of health care switches to more out-patient and preventative medicine … we needed to bolster our primary care clinics.”

The ‘front door’

The expansion mirrors moves made by the handful of other major healthcare providers in the highly competitive Twin Cities health care market, said Daniel Zismer, chair and director of the Master in Healthcare Administration Program at the University of Minnesota.

“These clinics are the front door to the rest of the healthcare system,” Zismer said. “So, if your front door looks good, chances are the market is going to use your health system.”

It’s also a way for HCMC to push back against the false impression that, as the region’s safety net clinic, it only provides care for the poor and indigent, he added.

Spratt said Whittier Clinic would provide an off-site base for some of the specialists located at HCMC. Staff from its cardiology, surgery and pediatrics units will perform evaluations at Whittier Clinic that could lead to in-patient admissions Downtown.

A win for Whittier

HCMC’s arrival on Eat Street, as that restaurant-loaded section of Nicollet Avenue is known, was anticipated to be a boon to the Whittier neighborhood.

Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn said Whittier Clinic appeared to be the “gateway-type building” the neighborhood pushed HCMC to build. Biehn anticipated an immediate impact on Eat Street, one of the neighborhood’s primary business districts.

“We not only have a nice infusion of professional staff who will be there but also an increasing number of visitors, so it should be an advantage to the businesses along Nicollet Avenue,” she said.

Darcy Knight, co-owner of Old Arizona café and wine bar, was preparing for the October opening with plans for expanded hours and new lunch options.