MUHC site chosen

DANIEL McCABE | Yesterday, officials from the McGill University Hospital Centre confirmed the worst kept secret in the city -- the MUHC's hospital campus and research institute will be built on the Glen Yards site close to the Vendôme metro station. McGill is purchasing the land from Canadian Pacific Railways.

News about the location was leaked last week in The Gazette. The paper recently published a series of articles that called the Glen Yards location -- and the MUHC project itself -- into question. One anonymous McGill medical professor said the site -- which spans portions of Montreal's NDG neighbourhood and Westmount -- is too far away from the University. Patients grumbled that the MUHC superhospital -- which will encompass the staff and services currently located at the Royal Victoria, Montreal Children's, Montreal General, Montreal Chest and Montreal Neurological hospitals -- would be too big and impersonal. The project's cost was attacked and one surgeon and several patients charged that physicians and patients hadn't been consulted enough about the project.

In addition, an article in The Suburban posited that McGill might face a difficult time getting Westmount officials to support the necessary zoning changes. About one third of the proposed hospital campus would exist on Westmount land. "There will be very strong opposition," predicted Westmount mayor Peter Trent. "The people in the immediate area, in my reading, would probably be very concerned about traffic, noise and everything else."

Another cause for concern is that the Glen Yards site requires a major environmental clean-up. The property, used for years by CP, is polluted by diesel fuel and other toxic chemicals.

Dr. Nicholas Steinmetz, the MUHC's planning director, says the Glen Yards location best met the MUHC's checklist of attributes it wanted in a potential site.

The land is big enough to accommodate parking space, ambulatory services, the research institute and a distinct section devoted to pediatric and adolescent patients. It is easy to get to, being located close to several bus routes, a highway and both a metro station and a commuter train station. It's situated not too far away from the Faculty of Medicine's headquarters downtown. It's located in a fairly quiet, residential area. And it offers pleasant views and access to restaurants and stores to boot.

Steinmetz doesn't anticipate too many problems with Westmount citizens. "I'm confident we can work things out. We're not some kind of foreign agent coming in to destroy the local environment. Our goal is to improve health care -- that's to everybody's benefit."

Nor is he concerned about pollution at the site. "There are remedies for all the pollutants. There is no reason to have any serious concern about that." CP is paying for the removal of contaminated soil from the site and the process has already begun.

"I doubt very much that we could find any site in the Montreal area of this size that wouldn't require some sort of remedial work to be done," adds Steinmetz.

As for the notion that the MUHC process is bulldozing along without any input from doctors or patients, Steinmetz says the accusation is just plain wrong.

"We haven't been doing anything in hiding. I would argue that the process has been quite open. There has been very wide consultation. We've involved clinicians, nurses, technologists, patients, social workers, physiotherapists. We had the largest faculty retreat in the history of the Faculty of Medicine devoted to this and 350 medical researchers told us this idea is great. Patients have been a part of all of the important planning committees."

Is the location too far from McGill?

"It would be wonderful to build at Peel and Sherbrooke, but Peel and Sherbrooke is taken," jokes Steinmetz. He says that MUHC planners weren't really keen to set up shop in the heart of downtown anyway. "It's hard to access and it's too noisy." The flat terrain surrounding the Glen Yards is another plus. "Just try bringing your grandmother up the hill to the Royal Victoria Hospital in the winter. It's no picnic."

As for the commute to McGill, Steinmetz says, "Five kilometres is not the end of the world. It's a metro ride away. The 24 bus goes right there."

Dean of Medicine Abe Fuks adds that the high-tech nature of the new MUHC complex will help keep the MUHC and McGill closely connected. "We'll be building facilities for tele-conferencing and video-conferencing. There will be increased access to online medical information so maybe doctors won't need to go to the medical library as often." McGill will also likely set up a shuttle service linking the two sites.

The construction of the MUHC complex is estimated to cost $850 million. It will be largely financed through a major capital campaign, a grant of $250 million from the Quebec government, and a contribution from the Canadian government towards the construction of the research institute. The complex is scheduled to open in 2004.

Steinmetz says arguments that it would be cheaper to refurbish existing facilities are incorrect.

Studies indicate that it could cost more than $900 million to upgrade 15 MUHC departments that constitute 30% of the MUHC hospitals' current space. "And that's just to bring them to a level that's adequate.

"If you look at things like where the surgery units are currently located -- they're on the eighth or tenth floor of some of our hospitals. Trauma patients have to be taken all over the place to get treatment. There is no way to modify something like that. There is no room at the Montreal General Hospital for us to set up a surgery area on the ground floor."

For less money, an entirely new complex can be built, says Steinmetz. And researchers and patients don't have to put up with years of disruptive renovations -- they can simply move into the new MUHC complex when it's ready to open.

Building new structures gives planners an opportunity to create friendlier environments for both patient care and medical education.

"To take one example, studies indicate that things like agreeable views can help shorten hospital stays and reduce the need for painkillers," says Steinmetz.

"The views [at the MUHC complex] will be terrific. Patients will be looking up at the mountain from one side and down at the South Shore from the other. We can pay proper attention to things like green space and daylight." He adds that the MUHC's existing hospitals are sometimes "sorely lacking" in this area.

"We want to create a true healing environment. The buildings won't be overwhelmingly large -- they'll be six to eight stories, maximum."

Adds Fuks, "This is a wonderful opportunity to develop better facilities for teaching our students and residents."

"McGill has always been innovative in the past and we're being innovative now," says Steinmetz. "Other countries are looking at what we're doing and they're starting to copy our planning methods. We've been advising colleagues in Switzerland, France and Argentina."