East Cooper Medical Center

East Cooper Medical Center is off Mathis Ferry Road in Mount Pleasant and is owned by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A hospital operator that has called Mount Pleasant home for more than 30 years is planning its first major out-of-town move, joining the fray of providers expanding into Berkeley County.

Tenet Healthcare's East Cooper Medical Center is proposing to build a $12 million, 9,600-square-foot freestanding emergency department on S.C. Highway 41 and Clements Ferry Road, just over the Wando River.

Freestanding centers generally offer around-the-clock care for urgent needs. Patients go elsewhere if they need to see a specialist.

The proposal is awaiting approval by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which has the authority to reject medical projects it deems unnecessary. 

Michael McEachen, chief strategy officer for East Cooper Medical, said the area near the Cainhoy Plantation development is a logical choice given that thousands of homes that are projected to be built in the coming years.

The immediate area is not served by a health care provider, he said, and no other hospitals have filed plans to do so.

East Cooper Medical has a contract to buy the site, which is about 10 miles  from its existing full-service hospital in Charleston County. 

"It is across one waterway, but it is essentially in our backyard," said Patrick Downes, CEO of East Cooper Medical.

The plan reflects the broader trend among hospital operators to add limited-service brick-and-mortar outposts to retain patients and be closer to residential communities.

East Cooper Medical said in its Sept. 6 application that construction is planned to begin as soon as it secures DHEC's permission. If approved, the hospital system anticipates completing the project by early 2022. 

The emergency center would be open 24 hours a day and would have physicians staffed at all hours. About 15 percent of East Cooper Medical's patients now come from Berkeley County. 

Patrick Downes (copy) (copy)

East Cooper Medical Center CEO Patrick Downes. Provided/File

While the region's other major hospital systems have been focused on expanding their horizons, East Cooper Medical has largely stayed put until this year. In July, it opened  physicians offices on Daniel Island. 

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The planned freestanding emergency department would be on the banks of the Wando, at the southern end of Berkeley County. Part of the hospital's justification for the investment to DHEC is that would it better prepare the area for natural disasters, especially hurricanes, Downes said. High winds pose a problem with crossing local bridges. Emergency medical services often stop operating during evacuation orders as well.

"If there is a true emergency in that area, the community doesn't have access to emergency care," Downes said.

Meanwhile, another fast-growing but historically underserved part of Berkeley County is set to be flush with medical care.

Roper St. Francis is opening its new 50-bed hospital within days in the Carnes Crossroads development in Goose Creek. Also, the Medical University of South Carolina is planning an even larger hospital nearby. And Trident Health, which already has a emergency care department in Moncks Corner, has permission to build a 50-bed hospital but has not announced whether it will break ground.

Under state law, medical providers can challenge the necessity of a competitor's expansion plans, a process that can lead to litigation and delays.

Almost every proposal for new emergency centers have faced opposition in recent years. Downes said he is prepared for that possibility. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.