Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center (Courtesy)

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) – Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center opened the first burn care center in Idaho at the beginning of the month.

The burn program involved renovations to four hospital departments, including a total overhaul of the trauma ward, and more than 2,000 hours of training for all levels of the hospital staff. More than a dozen burn patients have been treated at EIRMC since the program quietly opened April 1.

The $5 million facility is now the primary provider of burn care between Salt Lake City and Seattle, and the only location of its kind in any of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, the Post Register reports.

Hospital CEO Jeff Sollis said that EIRMC and its parent company, HCA Healthcare, had been working for more than two years to establish the new aspect of the hospital’s care. In the past, people who were injured in eastern Idaho or the rest of the Yellowstone region would be air-lifted to either the University of Utah or the University of Colorado, the two closest burn center locations.

“We were seeing all the helicopters flying over the building to take patients to Utah. We were talking to the families of patients about the difficulties they faced in getting treatment that far away from their homes,” Sollis said.

The lengthy flying times rarely affected patient outcomes as much as they affected the cost to the victims and their family. A 2004 study from the University of Utah found that their average burn patient was flown 246 miles to receive treatment. In 9 percent of cases, the cost for the patient’s flight was more than what they were charged for treatment by the hospital.

There are 128 total burn centers in the United States, and EIRMC’s new program will halve the travel time for many patients in the region.

The hospital partnered with Doctors Hospital in Georgia, another hospital managed by HCA Healthcare that has the largest burn care center in the United States, and the Burn and Reconstruction Centers of America to create the new program.

Dozens of EIRMC nurses and doctors flew out to Augusta, Ga., to study the procedures related to burn care at Doctors Hospital. Georgia doctors also flew to Idaho Falls to advise Sollis and the hospital administration on how the new facilities could best be managed.

“We can go out there and see a number of burn surgeries in a week that we might not see around here in a year,” lead trauma surgeon Dr. Michael Lemon said.

Between the four renovated departments and the new hospital resources, most types of burns can now be treated at EIRMC. Lemon said the hospital could handle thermal burns from fireworks and electrical wires, radiation burns suffered at Idaho National Laboratory and even frostbite “burns” from hikers in the nearby mountains. The only patients he thought the hospital would have to transfer would be infants with severe burns of the majority of their body.

“There is essentially no limit to the burn victims we’ll be able to treat here,” Lemon said.

Remodeling the six rooms throughout the hospital and expanding the trauma center cost $3 million, with another $2 million going to the medical devices and technology. The listed cost does not include the staff training, which included 98 days of travel to Augusta and thousands of hours of training that will continue through the summer.

Four main parts of Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center were renovated to create the new burn care center. Rooms were set aside in the emergency rooms and operating rooms to provide special equipment for burn patients, including rapid heating that can bring the room’s temperature to 85 degrees and make it easier for patient’s injured bodies to regulate their temperature. Burns impair the body’s ability to maintain its temperature and fight off infections.

The room in the ER was originally designed to treat contagious viral outbreaks and has a self-contained water system that doesn’t connect to a city line.

On the second floor, six rooms in the hospital’s intensive care unit were remodeled to handle long-term care for burn victims. Nurses and visitors must wear scrubs any time they’re in the room with a patient to reduce the risk of infecting them.

“We’re still learning a lot. This is all additional stuff that we are learning, and we are excited to learn it,” ICU nurse Rina Grover said.

The biggest physical change in the hospital happened to the new Trauma, Burn and Wound Ward. The ward, which focuses on outpatient procedures that take less than an hour, has expanded from five rooms to 13 and installed dozens of new machines to treat burns and other flesh injuries.

“This gives us the opportunity to see a more diverse load of patients coming through the hospital,” Trauma Ward Director Traci Maier said.

New machines in the outpatient facility include two hyperbaric chambers that can provide pressurized oxygen therapy to patients attached to oxygen machines, a whirlpool tub that can clean fresh or old burns and two specialized procedure rooms.

Trauma ward patients can be scheduled by other departments in EIRMC, but many are referred to the facility from other hospitals in the city. Sometimes patients will even be able to walk in and get treatment immediately.

According to Maier, the ward has already seen an increase in the number of patients treated. The number of burn patients coming through the outpatient ward has skyrocketed, from four or five patients per week to five or more patients a day. There already have been times when all 13 rooms in the ward were in use at the same time.

Over the past few months, EIRMC staff has traveled to regional hospitals and talked to emergency medical teams to let them know that the facility was now able to treat burn victims. Word got out quickly in the Idaho Falls area – more than a dozen local patients have already passed through the ICU and outpatient centers, some of whom showed up before the hospital had planned to officially open the program.

No patients from out-of-state have been admitted to the EIRMC burn program yet.

Of the 128 burn programs in the country, around half have been verified as high-quality care options by the American Burn Association. EIRMC’s burn center will need to be around for at least three years to potentially earn that verification.

“All the plans and estimates we had about the need for this service in our region has been right so far,” Sollis said.