Lowell Community Health Center expands patient-care model

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LOWELL — Hammering, drilling and sawing are not usually associated with patient care, but the five months long construction project going on at Lowell Community Health Center is designed to improve the patient experience by expanding the center’s pharmacy operations and walk-in center.

“We’ve completely outgrown our current pharmacy space,” Chief Operating Officer Elizabeth Hale said during a tour of the under-construction project Friday morning.

Currently, the prescription services of the health center are provided by a 600-square-foot CVS-run pharmacy. Hale said that with the retail drugstore chain getting out of the federally qualified health care business, LCHC saw an opportunity to step in and provide and manage those services in-house.

“Three years ago this July, we started our clinical pharmacy program,” she said. “We brought on Amy [Sullivan] and a team of clinical pharmacists. It demonstrated to us what an important, integral part of the health care team pharmacists are.”

Sullivan, the senior director of pharmacy services, said that expanding the pharmacy space from 1,100 square feet to 1,600 square feet may facilitate prescription compliance by reducing wait times. She noted that of the 1,000 people who come to LCHC every day, between 300-500 of those patients access the current pharmacy services.

“It’s a high-volume pharmacy,” Sullivan said. “We could see a doubling of that. This project will make it easier to access care and reduce barriers to entry, as well as receiving prompt, efficient and culturally competent care.”

The in-house pharmacy will feature the latest high-tech equipment to streamline operations to further improve wait times and efficiencies, said 340B Program Compliance Manager Diane Martin.

“We’re really investing in automation,” she said. “We’ll have a prescription-filling robot that can fill100 prescriptions an hour — sort, count and label.”

The existing Patient Walk-in Center offers a range of immediate care service such as sick visits, joint injuries, stitches, assistance with sprains and back pain, treatment of skin infections, non-severe allergy management and on-the-spot testing for conditions like COVID-19, pregnancy, urinary infections, vaginal infections, sore throats and flu. It can also give same-day vaccines.

But it does so in a crowded, semi-private space that Hale said isn’t user-friendly for staff or patients.

“What we learned from the pandemic is that we had a capacity issue in our walk-in center,” Hale said. “How do we make sure that we have a waiting room where people aren’t top of each other where we can safely take care of them? We need to have quick, easy access where we could service a lot of patients quickly and efficiently – our space wasn’t conducive to that.”

The new space will have a larger waiting area, updated and expanded exam rooms and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant consult rooms.

The clinical expansion of the pharmacy and walk-in center is one more step in the organization’s model toward providing wrap-around outpatient health care to its clients. The 165,000 square feet of rehabilitated mill space on Jackson Street, just off of Downtown Lowell, already provides a range of medical care including pediatrics, eye and dental care, mental health supports, OB/family planning services and HIV screening and treatment.

The $1.2 million pharmacy project is being funded through board-approved reserves, while the $1.2 million walk-in center construction is funded with American Rescue Plan Act money.

Although 74% of its patients are on MassHealth, which provides health benefits to qualifying children, families, seniors and people with disabilities living in Massachusetts, its clinical and pharmacy services are available to the general public.

More than 37,000 people are registered to receive care through LCHC, which equates to 100,000 visits a year.

LCHC has a reputation of breaking ground on more than just construction projects. It pioneered the Metta Health Center in 2000, one of the first health centers of its kind in the United States, originally founded to serve the needs of Lowell’s Southeast Asian community.

The center now serves as a healthcare sanctuary for refugees, asylum seekers and all who have been forcibly displaced from their homelands due to war, persecution or human rights abuses. LCHC provides integrated, multidisciplinary care to those survivors.

Threaded throughout LCHC’s mission, clinical work and physical spaces is the commitment to removing barriers to health care, said Dr. Alison Curcio, chief of the Patient Walk-In Center.

“[These projects] will provide seamless front- and back-end services,” she said. “Make it really easy for people to come in the day-of to be seen and get what they need and not have to wait.”

The projects are just the beginning of a reimaging of patient-centered health care, said Christopher Maher, director of security and public safety.

“We’re not resting on our laurels” he said. “What’s next? What else we can do?”

The new pharmacy is scheduled to open September 30, with the walk-in center shortly after. A redesigned lobby greeting area is also part of the renovation. During construction, LCHC’s current walk-in and pharmacy services are “100% operational,” said Cynthia Wood, director of facilities.

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