With the clip of an oversized pair of scissors, Pen Bay Medical Center opened a new gastroenterology suite during a ribbon cutting ceremony earlier this week.

The suite, located in the Physicians Building on the PBMC campus, will help the hospital meet a dramatic increase in the demand for colonoscopies and the care of digestive system disorders and colorectal cancer.

“We are committed to meeting the growing health care needs of our community even as we navigate COVID-19, and this new gastroenterology suite will allow us to do just that,” said Mark Fourre, MD, president of Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital.

Kirk Bernadino, MD, the medical director of Pen Bay Gastroenterology, did the honors of cutting the ribbon. He offered a reminder of how critical it is that patients not defer normal screenings and care because of COVID-19.

“We’ve worked hard to make the new gastroenterology suite, and in fact the entire hospital, the safest place possible for patients to receive the health care they need,” said Bernadino. “The risk of deferring screenings for colorectal cancer, for example, are far greater than the risk of COVID-19.”

The 700-square-foot suite more than doubles the space dedicated to the Gastroenterology Department and includes six exam rooms, waiting room, registration area and administrative offices. The construction is one of several capital improvement projects at PBMC including the 42,000-square-foot Health Center, which will house most of the hospital’s primary care practices when it opens in late 2020.

The number of gastrointestinal visits increased by 58% from 2018 to 2019. PBMC Chief Medical Officer Mark Eggena, MD, PhD, attributed that growth to the medical center's growing reputation.

“Our communities recognize that we offer a high level of expertise in gastroenterology right here close to home, and that has led to more people seeking care here rather than traveling to Portland or Bangor,” Eggena said.

Eggena tied the increase in referrals to PBMC’s relationship with St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor and to an increase in the number of primary care providers at both PBMC and Waldo County General Hospital.

“Between PBMC and WCGH, we’ve hired 20 new primary care providers in the last three years,” Eggena said. “They have done a great job of screening patients for gastrointestinal disorders and referring them when necessary.”

The demand, Eggena said, is likely to increase. He said research shows the need for additional gastroenterologists to care for patients in the 50-mile radius that PBMC serves. The medical center currently has one full-time gastroenterologist and is actively recruiting to hire up to two more.

PBMC has a long history of providing GI services. For more than 20 years, the highly respected Neil Smith, MD, provided GI services at PBMC before retiring in 2016. After that, the hospital provided only limited GI services before hiring Kirk Bernadino, MD, as a full-time gastroenterologist in 2018.

“Dr. Smith pioneered gastroenterology in our community,” Dr. Bernadino said. “Establishing a standalone Gastroenterology Department and building these new facilities are a tribute to his superb clinical skills and his ever-present grace and compassion.”

Construction of the new gastroenterology suite started with demolition work in January, said Mike Rich, PT, the PBMC senior director of operations who is also overseeing construction of the new Health Center.

“These projects are part of our effort to build a healthier future for our coastal communities by making sure that we have world-class health care available right here close to home,” Rich said.