St. Christopher's Hospital for Children will undergo a $110 million expansion, including an innovative $19 million center to integrate care for North Philadelphia children whose lives are marred by hunger and violence, hospital officials said Monday.

The bulk of the money to be invested by St. Christopher's owner, for-profit Tenet Healthcare Corp., will go into a $91 million expansion of the main hospital to 226 beds from 189 beds, including three new operating rooms, hospital chief executive Carolyn Jackson said.

"Dollar for dollar, this is the most important investment that's been made in Philadelphia health care in the last five to 10 years," Jackson said.

The 135,000-square-foot critical-care tower is expected to open in mid-2015, Jackson said.

The Center for the Urban Child, which will unite several pediatric practices in one 30,000-square-foot building and expand the types of services offered there, is expected to open by the end of next year, she added.

The center – both a new building and a conceptual arrangement that, while not new, has rarely if ever been implemented at a children's hospital – will become the gateway to all primary-care clinics at St. Christopher's. More than 350 children a day already visit the clinics, a number Jackson said could rise by more than 50 percent.

Forty percent of neighborhood children live in poverty, she said, and the center will attempt to address the social disparities that researchers say play a large role in their current health and future opportunities.

The center will assign "medical hosts," whose role will be similar to the nurse-navigators who often help breast cancer patients deal with the dizzying combination of scans, infusions, doctors and treatments. In this case, the medical hosts will be routinely assigned to children in the primary-care clinic, to make sure they get to the clinics and specialists who deal with what are often a combination of medical conditions.

The center also will step up current screening for problems at home, such as domestic violence, that can lead to medical conditions in children, said Robert McGregor, St. Christopher's interim pediatrician-in-chief.

He described a child who had visited the emergency room numerous times and been hospitalized for asthma. Staff eventually traced the problem to mold in the subsidized housing where the family lived and was able to work with the agency responsible to relocate them.

"In this model, we will be able to do this for everybody," McGregor said.

Marla Gold, dean of the Drexel University School of Public Health, described the plan in a phone interview as "very forward-thinking" and predicted that over time if would improve the health of the surrounding community.

Five years after completion, the expansion is expected to add 300 jobs on the St. Christopher's campus near North Front Street and East Erie Avenue, officials say. The hospital now employs 2,200.

William E. Aaronson, a professor and health-care expert at Temple University's Fox School of Business, called the project a boon for North Philadelphia, but questioned whether Tenet could make it work financially.

"If they can keep the beds filled, then they are going to make money," Aaronson said. Temple University closed its Children's Medical Center, with 70 beds, in 2007 because of low occupancy, Aaronson said.

Jackson said St. Christopher's critical-care unit sometimes runs out of space. "We definitely have capacity issues at times, which is one of the drivers of this," she said.

On average, about 60 percent of the hospital's beds are filled, she said.

Children's hospitals have posted solid financial results during the financial downturn because virtually all children can get state-subsidized insurance.

St. Christopher's operating profit margin improved every year between 2008 and 2011. The hospital had operating income of $27.2 million on revenue of $296.3 million for the 12 months ended June 30, 2011, according to the latest data available from the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council.

Tenet's investment in St. Christopher's shows a commitment to the hospital and the community, officials said.

"This is a proud moment for Tenet and St. Christopher's," Trevor Fetter, Tenet's president and chief executive, said in a news release.

Fetter is scheduled to attend an announcement of the project Tuesday with Mayor Nutter and hospital officials.

Tenet is seeking state and local aid for the project, but nothing has been finalized, Jackson said.

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or