University Medical Center is ramping up efforts to start a specialized burn treatment program in Southern Arizona.

Trauma Chief Dr. Peter Rhee is starting the program, which will eventually be a full-scale burn unit, and says it will reduce the number of patients who have to travel to Phoenix for severe burn treatment.

UMC already treats some burns, but adding specialists will enable greater treatment capacity, Rhee says.

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“Right now the only burn center itself is in Maricopa, so everybody that gets burned in all of the population of people in Tucson and Southern Arizona, often get flown to Phoenix," he says.

St. Mary's Hospital used to have an inpatient burn unit, but that closed years ago, Rhee says.

He's recruited Dr. Gary Vercruysse, an accomplished burn specialist, to start the burn program at UMC. He set up burn units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Gary lets us hold on to and treat a lot more burns that we used to not be able to do before, which is really great for the families--they don’t have to drive all the way to Phoenix to see their loved ones," Rhee says. "Sometimes it’s [a] prolonged hospitalization [and], as you can imagine, that takes quite a toll on the family."

Vercruysse says there's a difference between a burn treatment center and the rest of the trauma center.

“A burn center has not only the hospital staff, the physicians that have been specially trained to take care of burns, but also all the other things that go with it. The specialized tools in the operating room, the beds, the physical therapy, and all the occupational therapists and physical therapists and social workers that go along with that. So really we offer much more than a regular hospital can offer," Vercruysse says.

Having a local burn center will save money, largely in transportation costs, the doctors say. Just transporting a patient by helicopter can cost $13,000 to $15,000, they say.

Eventually, UMC aims to have a full-scale burn unit, which entails a dedicated facility for burn treatment, Rhee says. The expansion of its burn program is a step toward that goal, and community fundraising will likely be required to add a burn facility, he says.

Vercruysse started as the UMC burn program director in August.