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Can Treasure Coast's health care system handle influx of people?

'We've doubled the number of physicians, we've tripled the number of advanced practice providers and that's still not enough,' Cleveland Clinic executive says
Posted at 8:44 PM, Apr 09, 2024

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — It's a growing pain we've heard again and again: the Treasure Coast's health care system bending under the weight of population influxes.

Many residents have come to WPTV, saying there aren't enough medical providers to go around amid the rising population.

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"The issue with the health care is a serious problem, as we have found out this year," Tradition resident Gigi Patterelli said.

Patterelli and her husband, Louis, told WPTV they've lived in the area for more than 20 years but recently switched insurance providers and had to find a new primary care physician.

So far, they haven't had any luck.

Gigi Patterelli and her husband, Louis, have lived in the Treasure Coast area for more than 20 years but recently switched insurance providers and have had trouble finding a new primary care physician.  April 9, 2024
Gigi Patterelli and her husband, Louis, have lived in the Treasure Coast area for more than 20 years but recently switched insurance providers and have had trouble finding a new primary care physician.

"We have Blue Cross Blue Shield, paying $800 a month for insurance, and they say they don't have an appointment from Vero Beach to Wellington," Gigi Patterelli said. "There was not one doctor available to see [Louis] for his sinus infection."

The soonest appointment the couple could find is still 10 months away, and in the meantime, she told WPTV that emergency departments and walk-in clinics are just as full.

"He was at the ER. They were so busy there was no place for him to go. He was waiting on a chair in the hallway the entire time," Gigi Patterelli said. "I've lived in other countries outside of the United States, and the health care there isn't that bad compared to what's going on here. The growth is just too fast."

It's a strained system, Dr. Rishi Singh, the vice president of Cleveland Clinic's Martin North and South hospitals, also sees.

Dr. Rishi Singh, the vice president of Cleveland Clinic's Martin North and South hospitals, is dealing with increased needs for health care. April 9, 2024
Dr. Rishi Singh, the vice president of Cleveland Clinic's Martin North and South hospitals, is dealing with increased needs for health care.

"We've doubled the number of physicians, we've tripled the number of advanced practice providers and that's still not enough," Singh said.

Singh said primary care physicians are especially taxed.

"The biggest problem is we have a national shortage of primary care physicians," Singh said. "They're the people that take care of everything and, unfortunately, they're not reimbursed well by various payers."

The average primary care physician in Florida is paid an annual salary of $157,101, which is 40% under the national average of $217,445, according to Zip Recruiter. It shows Florida's average primary care physician salary is the lowest in the country.

Singh said Cleveland Clinic is paying one of the most competitive rates in the area to try to recruit and retain, but it isn't always easy.

"What has been the biggest challenge in trying to recruit? Has it been the cost of living?" WPTV reporter Kate Hussey asked.

"It's been the cost of living," Singh said. "I think the other thing is having space. Brick-and-mortar space here has become expensive."

Singh said in a continual effort to keep up with the growth, primary care physicians are picking up extra shifts. He said the health care system is expanding its training programs and telehealth options, along with hiring more doctors and nurse practitioners.

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To serve more people, Cleveland Clinic Martin Health's three hospitals have more than doubled physicians to 255. 

There are now 1,220 providers, including community physicians and advanced practice providers at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health.

In 2023, Singh said Cleveland Clinic Martin Health touched more than 977,020 people's lives, an increase of 18.6% since the integration of Martin Health into Cleveland Clinic in 2019, including outpatients.

"We have seen the wait times come down as a result of hiring well and a result of expanding our population of doctors here," Singh said.

Down the road, Singh said the health care network is also looking to build more facilities and possibly add another hospital bed tower on the Treasure Coast.

"We have about $30 million in capital projects going live between this year and next year to expand more space, but even with that I don't know if we’re going to suffice," Singh said. "We're actually renting spaces to put more doctors and providers into."

WPTV also contacted Port St Lucie Mayor Shannon Martin, who told WPTV in a statement that Tenet Health is building a 54-bed hospital on Becker Road near Veranda Falls. Cleveland Clinic Tradition has acquired 40 acres of land for a hospital expansion, and the City Council recently approved plans for HCA Florida St. Lucie Hospital to expand by adding two stories to their existing facility.

Her full statement reads as follows:

"The City Council and I have heard from many residents concerned about the impact of growth on the medical industry. While the City does not have direct control over the private medical industry, we know how important accessible medical care is for our residents, and we have been in discussions with local hospital leaders regarding these challenges. At our summer City Council workshop, we invited leaders from both Cleveland Clinic and HCA to come speak with us and update the Council on their plans for the growth. They stressed this particular issue is not exclusively local, but nationwide. Both of these health care providers have physical expansion plans in place for Port St. Lucie. In addition, construction is underway right now for a new hospital off Becker Road for Tenet Health, which would be a new healthcare provider in Port St. Lucie. These healthcare leaders also reported to the City Council that they’re continuing to recruit and hire medical professionals.

Specifically, these expansion plans include: Tenet Health is building a brand new 54-bed hospital on Becker Road near Veranda Falls, Cleveland Clinic Tradition has acquired 40 acres of land for a hospital expansion, and the Council recently approved plans for HCA Florida St Lucie Hospital to expand by adding two stories to their existing facility."

Singh also said the Florida Hospital Association worked with the government to develop a $1 billion grant program to help fund loan repayment for physicians, nurses, physical therapists and others to help increase the use of urgent care facilities over ERs to help keep wait times down.

"All of those are going to help immensely to oversee the caring for the population and we'll do our part," Singh said. "We'll keep recruiting, training our brick and mortars. Even in the most challenging times of health care, we'll keep growing."

In January, the Florida Senate passed a bill to increase Florida's health care workforce by expanding funding for programs, increasing residency opportunities and streamlining licensures, to name just a few.