FARGO - Work has begun on a $1.5 million expansion of the emergency department at Sanford Medical Center here, administrators announced Monday.

The project will allow the medical center to handle emergency medical visits that now are more than twice what the facility was designed to handle, now growing at the rate of 8 percent a year.

"The increase in volumes is quite significant, especially when you look at our historic trends against that 8 percent increase," said Susan Jarvis, vice president of emergency services for Sanford Health in Fargo. "That's a big shift."

The center treats 55,000 patients a year, more than double the 25,000 it was built to handle. It employs more than 100 workers, including 16 physicians.

Starting today, walk-in emergency patients will enter through a temporary door on the north side of the emergency center garage. Visitors will use the south employee entrance.

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The renovation, which will be done in three phases, will add seven new exam rooms for a total of 27. The waiting room will be expanded and moved, and the nurses' station will be redesigned.

Sanford continues to move ahead with plans for a new medical center, including a new trauma and emergency center in Fargo, near Interstate 94 and Veterans Boulevard.