Tennessee has faced a growing number of rural hospital closures in recent years, but health care services in the county have expanded with the opening of a renovated emergency wing in Macon Community Hospital.

With the new emergency room, which includes more than 8,200 additional square feet, the hospital staff aims to provide increased access to local care with updated equipment and technology.

“This is an exciting time for all of us … this has been a project that’s been ongoing for many years and is finally coming to fruition,” Macon Community Hospital CEO Thomas Kidd said. “We put together a master plan 10 years ago, and due to changes and reimbursements, we’ve had to push it back.

“It’s a relief (to have it completed). There’s been a lot of hard work and effort.”

The emergency department’s medical director, Hanna Ilia, said that the expansion means patient care will be easier for his team, and that new county jobs will be created over time.

“(A new ER is) going to make our jobs easier as far as patient flow and privacy,” Ilia said. “With new technology it’s going to be more convenient, and there will probably be more telemedicine. Of course, patients will still receive the same quality of care our staff has always provided.”

According to Ilia, the hospital hired new nurses ahead of the expansion to meet projected needs. The administration plans to create more positions as the wing begins operation, and its new technology will also allow for partnerships with doctors in other cities.

“Here at the hospital, we’re doing a lot of training and continued education, and we will be adding a few positions to the staff,” Kidd said. “More people will be able to be treated here locally, with faster service. We have a robot we can connect to specialists in different cities. They can see and assess the patient, and we can start treatment here even if they need to be transferred later.”

Patient privacy is another focus area, with the updated ER consisting entirely of private rooms as opposed to the single private room previously in use.

“A lot of privacy is built into the new emergency department,” Kidd said. “You’ll notice the computer screens are hidden from view so nobody can see things, and we work really hard on things like that.”

Other additions include a larger triage area, a separate entrance for ambulances, a decontamination area, two large cardiac/trauma rooms, an isolation room, an obstetrician exam room and a separate room for patients with behavioral health issues.

Outside of the ER upgrades, the hospital will receive private registration rooms, a new entrance with covered areas for drop-offs and pick-ups, a separate waiting area for outpatient procedures, expanded lab tests and faster turnaround times, an additional area for local specialty clinics and additional parking.

Citizens Bank, Macon Bank & Trust, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development provided funding for the project, which Kidd said was ultimately completed under its $5.1-million budget.

“Without financing, we couldn’t do this,” Kidd said. “USDA was able to step in and help … (and) Citizens Bank and Macon Bank worked extremely well with us, providing construction financing and other financing activities to make this project possible.”

Tennessee’s USDA Rural Development Program Director Terence McGhee said the project is part of an effort to encourage development in rural communities.

“Everything we’re doing right now is economic and community development,” McGhee said. “You’ve seen communities and facilities that have lost hospitals. It’s been difficult and trying, but for you guys to step up and say, ‘We need our hospital, and we’re going to invest in our hospital’ … that’s a heck of an investment.”

With the project completed, Ilia believes that investment will pay off in Macon County’s future.

“Today, appropriately, during the Christmas season, we celebrate a new beginning,” Ilia said. “Moving forward, we will not succeed without the strong will and drive that brought us here today. The only way to predict the future is to create it, and I’m confident it will be bright based on the strong effort put forth by this team.”