The Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center is undergoing renovations to improve the patient experience and mitigate the effects of potential natural disasters.
Dane Friedman, chief engineer for the medical center, said the hospital is trying to keep up with the pace of growth in the region, especially with current and former military personnel. The VA medical center has been adding more than 315,000 square feet to the hospital between 2011 and 2022, as well as 900 new parking spaces.
“Charleston is a very military town,” Friedman said. “And I think a lot of people, as they retire, whether they’ve served time here most recently or in a previous tour, I think they look at Charleston as an area that has a strong sense of community for veterans.”
Friedman said the hospital has about $190 million worth of construction completed or approved by the federal government, though funding could increase as the medical center completes designs for future projects.
“The way that the funding works is once it’s approved, you get the funding for design,” Friedman said. “The construction funding is dependent on ... the federal government budgets, and those are not at our discretion. But the sooner we complete designs here, we get our projects on the list to be prioritized.”
Among the recently completed projects are a new front lobby; renovation and expansion of the intensive care unit; renovation of the emergency department; and expansion of the hospital’s outpatient mental health services.
“Mental health is one of the top priorities,” Friedman said. “So we’re trying to increase the number of spaces that we can see patients at the same time here.”
The VA medical center, which provides services across the coast of South Carolina, also broke ground this spring on its outpatient health annex in North Charleston and on a replacement clinic for its location in Myrtle Beach.
The new health annex in North Charleston will allow the VA medical center to move all of its primary care off site, Friedman said, freeing up space in the Charleston hospital, and hopefully making it easier for patients to access.
“That’ll allow us to backfill some of our existing primary care spaces with some specialty care services,” Friedman said.
The hospital is also renovating and expanding its pharmacy and its sterile processing services and constructing an electrophysiology lab.
Many of the renovations are about upgrading equipment and facilities, but some are also about mitigating potential flooding or seismic activity. The VA medical center has partnered with other hospitals in the medical district, including the Medical University of South Carolina and Roper St. Francis Healthcare, to work on flooding mitigation.
“It’s also nice to see that the rest of the community in Charleston is on board with flooding mitigation,” Friedman said. “And we do have community partners with MUSC and Roper, who are sharing the same initiatives that we are.”
One major project that hasn’t received approval that will help with that mitigation is a new inpatient bed tower in downtown Charleston, which would move all of the medical center’s clinical services off of the ground level.
“We’ve been requesting approval for a couple years, trying to get that one approved,” he said. “That’s a very big initiative for us. That’s really the solution to getting all of our services off of our first floor — the clinical services — and to mitigate the hospital for seismicity issues.”
The hospital also plans to add four floors to its existing parking garage and construct a new parking deck in downtown Charleston.
The medical center also plans to move all of its compensation and pension services to a consolidated location on Joint Base Charleston. Compensation and pension is the examination that veterans go through when they’re getting out of the military that determines their percentage of service-connected disability.
“It’ll have a separate entrance off of Dorchester Road,” Friedman said. “We’re looking forward for that project to allow our veterans that are currently at Joint Base to have a very familiar area in which they can get their C&P examinations done without having to come to the downtown, hustle bustle of Charleston.”
Friedman said the VA has worked to mitigate disruptions the construction causes patients or their families, including splitting projects into phases to allow the hospital to continue functioning.
“Trying to minimize impacts is very important to us as we plan all of our projects,” Friedman said. “Unfortunately, however, it is required that we do have to sometimes shut areas of the hospital down in order to make the area better.”