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UChicago Medicine Planning $633 Million Cancer Center On The South Side

Officials said a cancer center would allow more South Siders to receive treatment near their homes and free up beds elsewhere in the university's hospital system.

The University of Chicago Medicine campus in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood on Dec. 7, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago’s hospital system is planning a massive, $633 million cancer center for its Hyde Park campus to streamline cancer care at the university and free up beds elsewhere in the system, officials said.

UChicago Medicine wants to build a 128-bed cancer care and research facility on 57th Street between Maryland and Drexel avenues, pending approval from the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board.

The facility would be the first freestanding clinical cancer center in the city, handling about 200,000 outpatient visits and 5,000 inpatient visits per year, hospital officials said.

“The diagnosis of cancer is a major, life-altering event, and patients have to make multiple appointments — going in different directions to get this test and other tests,” Dr. Kunle Odunsi, director of the university’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, said in an interview Thursday.

With the proposed center, the university is “consolidating” its cancer care “so patients from our community can have access to a world-class facility all under one roof, and therefore can seamlessly navigate the system,” Odunsi said.

The center would include inpatient, outpatient and preventative care with 100 exam rooms. It would also be a “hub for research into the more aggressive forms of cancer” that affect people of color across the country, officials said.

Credit: Nancy Wong
The site of the proposed UChicago Medicine Cancer Center, at the corner of Drexel Avenue and 57th Street in Hyde Park, on Jan. 27.

Construction on the 500,000-square foot project, if approved, would begin next year. The cancer center would open in 2026.

With all 128 beds dedicated to cancer patients, the center would free up space for patients in need of other services like organ transplants and trauma and cardiology care, university officials said. UChicago’s medical center is at capacity most of the year.

The university’s health care system “is essentially being stretched to its limit right now,” Odunsi said. “This cancer hospital will provide much-needed relief to some of the challenges that we are facing with capacity.”

The capacity challenges come amid “many years” of divestment from the South Side by the health care industry, officials said.

Four struggling South Side hospitals tentatively agreed to combine into one health care system in January 2020, but abandoned their billion-dollar plan that May, citing a lack of state funding.

One of the hospitals — the former Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, which is the primary hospital for South Side neighborhoods like Bronzeville and Chinatown — was set to close following the failed consolidation plan.

Residents rallied to keep the hospital open, and the health review board rejected former owner Trinity Health’s move to close Mercy. The hospital was sold to Insight Chicago last April and renamed the Insight Hospital and Medical Center.

In addition, there was no Level 1 trauma center on the South Side for nearly three decades. UChicago closed its trauma center in 1988 and the defunct Michael Reese Hospital shut down its trauma division in 1991, in part because UChicago’s closure shifted an enormous burden of care and financial strain onto the facility.

UChicago’s trauma center reopened in 2018 after years of fierce activism from South Siders and students.

Facing a lack of services, about 56 percent of South Siders leave the community for their health care needs, as do 67 percent of residents seeking inpatient cancer care, according to the university.

UChicago Medicine is one of 13 members of the South Side Healthy Community Organization, a group of health care providers working to improve South Siders’ access to quality care close to home.

Advocate Health Care, South Shore Hospital and St. Bernard Hospital — the three hospitals that sought to combine with the former Mercy Hospital two years ago — are also part of the organization, which was launched in September.

The new cancer center would work “side by side” with the organization in an effort to rapidly detect and treat cancer in South Siders, Odunsi said. The community’s death rates from cancer are nearly twice the national average, according to the university.

“The transformation project is bringing in additional primary care providers that will help us with making sure primary care services are available to our residents,” Odunsi said. “Community health workers will be recruited as part of this project, so we can detect cancer early … and give [patients] the best and most appropriate treatment.”

“The South Side is the epicenter of healthcare inequality in the city,” Candace Henley, founder of The Blue Hat Foundation and member of the UChicago Medicine Community Advisory Council, said in a statement.

“The healthcare community needs to begin listening to the experiences of South Side patients and investing in better care options for patients of color if we are going to improve health outcomes for Chicago’s underprivileged communities,” Henley said. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to fight their best fight against cancer.”

UChicago Medicine is one of two systems in Illinois with a “comprehensive cancer center” designated by the National Cancer Institute, alongside Northwestern University’s Robert H. Lurie cancer center.

“Our health system is looking to build upon this legacy by establishing a cancer program of the future, where groundbreaking science and compassionate, complex care intersect,” Dr. Kenneth Polonsky, UChicago’s executive vice president for medical affairs, said in a statement.

UChicago Medicine asked the state’s health review board Monday for approval to begin design and site planning processes around the cancer center. The board will host a public meeting later this month about the project, university officials said.

If the design and planning work is approved, the university will ask the board to approve the center’s construction this fall.

“We’ve shown that we have broad support, and are hoping that the application will be reviewed favorably,” Odunsi said.

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