Healthcare and the Gainesville economy – do we make the grade?

Healthcare. Often a divisive term, it almost immediately draws sides concerning politics, high cost, availability, waste and corruption. And when stories flood the news concerning a healthcare executive jacking up prices for an antibiotic drug by fiftyfold, or the cost of EpiPen®, so critical to so many lives on a daily basis, skyrockets from $57 in 2007 to $600 for a pack of 2 today, it’s hard to view the industry positively.

But healthcare as a whole plays a crucial role in the economy of any country, state, city or town, despite its size. In fact, healthcare currently makes up 1/6 of the entire U.S. economy, more than any other industry.

So when reviewing the economic health of greater Gainesville, how do we fare? Well, with an Alachua County population of nearly 260,000, the area’s 4.3% unemployment rate ranks well alongside the nation with 6.3%. And according to recent Sperling’s Best Places data, projected job growth for our area is also promising at 40.3% over the next 10 years.

So where can some of these positive numbers be trending from? Healthcare.

UF Health, second only to the University of Florida in employment, employs 8,900 individuals in the greater North Central Florida area. The Veterans Administration follows at fourth with 3,500 employees and North Florida Regional Medical Center caps off at around 2,140. Add that to the ancillary medical offices, critical care facilities, therapy and testing services, and it’s difficult to dispute the impact of healthcare on the positive employment numbers in Gainesville.

UF Health Shands Hospital offers eight adult, and nine pediatric specialties placed among the nation’s best by US News and World Report in their 2015-2016 rankings. A flagship teaching hospital, UF Shands continues to be a destination for patients throughout Florida seeking care in either the Cancer or Children’s Hospital, one of the two specialty hospitals, Rehab or Psychiatric or any one of the multiple outpatient rehab centers or home health agency. Additionally, Gainesville is the site of the UF Health Shands Level 1 Trauma Center, with the ability to treat up to 100,000 patients annually. Currently under construction on the southern campus is also the addition of the UF Health Heart and Vascular Hospital as well as the UF Health Neuromedicine Hospital offering a combined additional bed count of 216 and 20 state of the art operating rooms.

As a whole, UF Health Shands and the UF College of Medicine had a combined impact of approximately $1.8 billion to the surrounding Gainesville economy in fiscal year 2015, including $544 million paid in salaries and benefits.

North Florida Regional Medical Center, Gainesville’s community hospital, has also experienced major growth. The recent additions of its 100,000 square foot South Tower, the $18.7-million Cancer Center, $4 million Electrophysiology Cath Lab, and expansion of the Women’s Center Operating Rooms, has grown North Florida Regional Medical Center to a 432-bed facility. In 2014, the addition of the Behavioral Health Center opened 20 beds (more recently, 30) to address the growing challenges facing the community’s mental health.

In 2014 alone, North Florida Regional Medical Center contributed approximately $267 million to the Gainesville economy, with $139 million in salaries and benefits.

Beyond the direct health-related employment and benefits afforded the Gainesville economy by our healthcare providers, consider the halo effect of their concentration in the area.

In 2015, over 97,000 patients from outside Alachua County sought treatment at UF Shands Hospital alone. That influx most certainly helps support local businesses in and around the hospitals.

Drive along the expanded campuses of either of our large local healthcare facilities and it’s hard to miss the impact on the Gainesville economy provided by their new local development and construction investments.

“There are as many as 450 area employees working every day at the construction site of our two new hospitals,” said David S. Guzick, MD, PhD, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health.

He continued, “Project managers at UF Health and the construction company divided several larger project components into smaller ones to enable local firms to bid.”

Consult any number of “best places to retire” ranking organizations and you’ll see access to quality healthcare is factored right alongside cost of living and climate. According to the US Census Bureau, since 2010 Gainesville saw a 19% increase in the area’s population percentage of those ages 65 and over. Certainly the per capita availability of 780 physicians, compared to the national average of 261, shows Gainesville has the medical resources. And when competition is high, patients benefit.

According to Cindy Birk, a top agent with local real estate firm Coldwell Banker MM Parrish Realtors, “The healthcare industry is a definite draw here, we see a lot of home sales due to medical professionals moving into the area but we are also seeing an increase in retirees looking for low maintenance homes close to healthcare. We are even seeing individuals looking for second homes to use while seeking medical treatment here in Gainesville.”

In addition to homeownership, retirees are driving toward the transitional freedom of the growing number of continuing care facilities in the area. Currently, 20 such communities exist from Ocala, to Gainesville and Palatka.

And it appears the stage is set for continued growth in healthcare. Back in 2012, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce projected the healthcare industry would add 5.6 million new jobs by 2020. And from an economic perspective right here in Gainesville, that seems right on track.

By Kathryn Pizzurro

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