UNC Health’s suburban strategy comes to Holly Springs as ground is broken for new hospital

UNC Rex Healthcare will start construction this week on a seven-story, 50-bed hospital in the Wake County suburb of Holly Springs — an expansion that is part of UNC Health Care’s ongoing efforts to serve the Triangle’s growing edges.

The hospital, when completed in 2021, will add medical services to an area whose residents have had to travel for years to Raleigh or Durham to receive them. That includes everything that makes a full-service hospital, including in-patient beds, labor and delivery, operation rooms equipped for surgery and a 24-hour emergency department.

Tom Williams, the administrator of UNC Rex’s Holly Springs hospital, said the hospital is a necessary investment to serve the tremendous growth in southern Wake County, specifically in towns such as Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina.

According to the most up-to-date statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, Holly Springs’ population was an estimated 35,223 people as of 2017, a 42.6 percent increase from its population in 2010. Fuquay-Varina has similarly seen a spike in its population, growing from 17,996 to 27,906 during that period — a 55.1 percent increase.

The growth isn’t expected to slow down significantly, with both of those towns home to some of the highest amounts of new construction in the Triangle.

“Citizens wanted affordable, quality care close to home,” Williams said in an interview about the need for the hospital.

He said that one of the most common needs residents expressed to UNC Rex during dozens of public meetings was shorter travel times to reach emergency care.

“Traffic and growth could endanger people,” Williams said of the distance between the southern Wake County towns and many of the main hospitals in Raleigh. The Holly Springs hospital, which will be at 781 Avent Ferry Road, will also have a critical-care transport team and a helipad to transfer patients to a larger hospital if needed.

For the past 10 years, he added, UNC Health has steadily added offices and services to areas of growth, referring to it as the “suburban strategy.”

UNC Health isn’t the only one: WakeMed and Duke Health have also continued to build and expand across the Triangle.

“If we were to talk about hospital care a decade ago, you would think about it in terms of in-patient care … but really our job now is about keeping patients out of the hospital,” Williams said. “Out-patient suburban care is a big part of that.”

Another need Williams thinks the hospital will address is an increasing demand for labor and delivery, with hundreds of young families moving to that part of the county in recent years.

“In the southern Wake market we have a good mix” of ages needing services, Williams said. “But at our urgent care, 30 percent (of patients) are pediatric.”

He said he will be personally excited to see the first baby born in Holly Springs.

The Holly Springs hospital is estimated to cost $136 million to build and is part of more than a million square feet of construction that UNC Health is currently building, the health care provider said.

UNC Health is building or planning to build new medical office buildings in Chapel Hill, west Cary and western Raleigh; a 145,000-square-foot cancer center at UNC Rex and a 335,000-square-foot surgical tower at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill.

The Holly Springs hospital alone is expected to create 275 to 300 jobs once it opens, across a range of positions from physicians and nurses to plumbers and mechanical services.

The hospital’s creation dates back many years to when Rex and Winston-Salem-based Novant Health both submitted applications to the state to build a hospital there, setting off a lengthy legal dispute. UNC Rex eventually secured the certificate of need for a 50-bed hospital in 2014, nine years after the initial process began.

North Carolina sets an annual limit on new health care construction. Under state law, expansions and major projects require a permit called a certificate of need to prevent over-building and over-saturating an area with unnecessary facilities that drive up health care costs.

The Holly Springs hospital will be built with growth in mind. A 50-bed hospital is typical for a community hospital, Williams said, though it could add more in the future.

The fact that the hospital will be a seven-story building is a departure from UNC Health’s usual designs, which Williams informally referred to as “pancake-style” — three-story facilities that spread out over large parcels of land. Being tall rather than wide keeps land open for future construction.

The hospital will be serviced by surface parking, though if there is ever an expansion, Williams said, the hospital will likely have to build a parking deck.

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.