U of C Medicine Announces City’s First Freestanding Cancer Center

The University of Chicago Medicine plans to build a $633 million, 500,000-square-foot facility dedicated to cancer care on its medical campus on the city’s South Side, representing one of the largest investments made by the academic health system for patients and the community. 

The plan for Chicago’s first freestanding clinical cancer center includes the addition of 128 beds. These beds will be dedicated to patients with cancer, allowing UChicago Medicine to open other beds for patients with complex or acute care needs in areas such as organ transplants, digestive diseases, cardiology, orthopedics, and trauma care. This, in turn, will help address some of the capacity constraints for the medical center, whose beds are full most days of the year.

As a critical first step, UChicago Medicine this week filed a Certificate of Need (CON) request to the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board (HFSRB) seeking approval to spend money on design and site planning for the proposed cancer center. This preparatory work is foundational to detailed planning for the cancer center and will inform its subsequent CON request this fall for the construction of the building. A significant amount of work is being planned around the patient experience and care-journey mapping, for which the participation of the community and current and former patients will be integral. 

As one of only two National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in Illinois and the only academic medical center on the South Side, UChicago Medicine is uniquely positioned to reimagine cancer care for the community and the City of Chicago. The “Comprehensive” distinction is the gold standard for cancer programs bestowed by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and recognizes the innovative research, leading-edge treatments, and extensive community outreach and education initiatives conducted at or by the organization.

“The University of Chicago has long been recognized for its strength in basic and translational research with fundamental and seminal contributions by our faculty to understanding the basic biology of cancer and its treatment,” said Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs at UChicago. “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 to provide an unrivaled approach to prevent, diagnose, study, treat and cure cancer.”

ADDRESSING HEALTH INEQUITIES

The South Side has experienced shrinking healthcare resources for many years. Now, about 56% of patients on the South Side leave the area to get healthcare. For cancer needs alone, 67% of residents who are seeking inpatient care leave the South Side. Research has found that patients living farther from healthcare facilities have worse health outcomes, longer lengths of hospital stay, non-attendance at follow-up visits, higher rates of chronic disease-related deaths, lower five-year cancer survival rates, and increased overall disease burden.

Residents of the South Side also carry a high cancer burden. The problem is expected to grow worse: The CDC predicts the nation’s cancer rates will increase by 49% from 2015 to 2050.

“Cancer death rates on the South Side are almost twice the national average, and cancer is the second-leading cause of death for area residents,” said Kunle Odunsi, MD, Ph.D., Director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center. “This is one of the key reasons we are building this cancer center. Social determinants of health are not only linked to adverse environmental exposures but also to a lack of resources, including access to disease prevention, early detection, and high-quality cancer care.”

If approved, the new cancer center will add to an emerging ecosystem of care on the South Side, where community hospitals play a vital role in providing access to care to vulnerable and lower-income patients and where academic health systems like UChicago Medicine play a critical role in treating the sickest patients and those who require complex care. 

Indeed, a collaborative of 13 South Side care providers, including UChicago Medicine, are working to establish the South Side Healthy Community Organization, which is being scoped to serve over 400,000 residents with more seamless and more accessible healthcare. The model will add 90 primary care providers and obstetric hires, access to nearly 50 priority specialists, 250 community healthcare workers/coordinators, and a connected care technology platform. 

UNDERSTANDING THE PATIENT

A significant portion of the planning and design will focus on the patient and family experience, including making sure all services throughout the care journey are in the same location and creating a healing and stress-reducing environment. 

“A diagnosis of cancer is a life-altering event for the patient and their loved ones,” said Tom Jackiewicz, President of the University of Chicago Medical Center. “We want to design a place that brings back the human side of healthcare, one that really thinks of people as individuals and not as a breast cancer patient or a colorectal cancer patient. They will be seen as an individual and as families coming to us for the best cancer care available.” 

The cancer center, which includes inpatient and outpatient care, will have a focus on prevention and early detection of cancer and be a hub for research into the more aggressive forms of cancer that affect residents on the South Side and many other communities of color across the country. 

“The South Side is the epicenter of healthcare inequality in the city, and 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. Everyone deserves the opportunity to fight their best fight against cancer,” said Candace Henley, a cancer survivor, founder of The Blue Hat Foundation and member of the UChicago Medicine Community Advisory Council. “The cancer center will increase access to vital complex care treatments for South Side patients while bringing the best cancer hospital in the state to the neighborhoods that need it most.”

Pending regulatory approval, construction of the new facility will begin in 2023 and open to patients in 2026. The project is expected to create more than 500 construction jobs, and at least 41% of contract dollars will go to minority- and woman-owned firms. The HFSRB will hold a public meeting in the coming weeks, giving UChicago Medicine the opportunity to share information about the proposed project with the community. 

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