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New Healthcare Center Opens in Harlem at Former North General Hospital

By Jeff Mays | December 20, 2012 1:28pm

HARLEM — There's very little paper floating around the Institute for Family Health's new $26 million facility at Madison Avenue and 119th Street in East Harlem.

Patients check in at an electronic kiosk to let the staff know they've arrived. That signals computers to pull up their electronic medical records. Doctors send out electronic prescriptions, and patients can check their medical records and doctor's orders, via computer.

"Once you arrive everything revolves around the patient," said Elizabeth Figueroa, the senior practice administrator for the healthcare facility that opened to patients this week.

"Before, patients would be referred to another floor or have to go here or there for a referral. Now, the patient arrives in the room and the care rotates around them."

The new facility is the final phase of the Institute's plan to replace care once provided at the now-defunct North General Hospital.

The Family Health Center initially opened inside the 200-bed hospital after North General declared bankruptcy in June of 2010 and announced it was closing.

But that building is slated to be used to house patients from Roosevelt Island's Goldwater Hospital, which is being closed next December to make way for Cornell University's tech campus.

The Institute's newly renovated building had served as an outpatient center at North General Hospital.

"For us, this is the jewel of the institution," said Dr. Eric Gayle, medical director for the Institute for Family Health. "This state-of-the-art facility says the patient's health matters regardless of what insurance they have."

The 37,000-square-foot building offers a full range of medical care, and is expected to handle as many as 80,000 patient visits a year. The facility houses primary care doctors, prenatal and gynecological services, dentists and opticians. There's even a 13-room counseling center offering mental health services.

It's also home to the Harlem Residency in Family Medicine, which will train new doctors with a goal that they will stay and practice medicine in the community. The residency program also is designed to help ease the national shortage of primary care physicians, officials said.

The number of medical students training to become primary care doctors has dropped by half since 1997, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Health Foundation. Only about 8 percent of medical school grads currently choose to enter primary-care medicine, mainly because these doctors have large workloads, but make less money than specialty-care providers based on lower insurance reimbursement rates, according to the foundation.

"There haven't been family physicians serving this area for a long time," Gayle said.

"The opportunity will exist for these doctors to stay with the community and that's important because they will know the community. They'll know which resources are available and how to navigate to get those resources for their patients."

The cadre of primary care physicians at the Institute for Family Health, combined with the center's holistic approach, will better enable the community to tackle some of its longest-standing health issues — diabetes, obesity and HIV/AIDS, Gayle said.

Doctors can also now link medical care with dental care, which is often ignored in lower-income communities, he said.

The new physician residency program is affiliated with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and is expected to graduate 12 family physicians a year beginning in 2015. There is also a dental training program.

For Haven Foster, 63, an East Harlem resident and retired off-Broadway actress and medical assistant, coming to the new center after North General closed was a no-brainer. She was a little nervous at the check-in kiosk, but a staffer stepped up and showed her how to use the terminal.

"We have more space — a beautiful new space — but the same doctors," said Foster, who was there for a check-up.

Foster said she plans to spread the word to friends.

"A lot of people think North General is still open. I tell them it's closed but I let them know this is available to them," she said.