Attracting Doctors to Polk County
Physician training excels as two Polk County providers, Lakeland Regional Health and Winter Haven Hospital, build programs of excellence.
“As the population in Polk County grows, so does the need for access to reliable, high-quality care,” said Nancy Finnigan, Designated Institutional Official at Lakeland Regional Health (LRH), which will officially launch its GME program in July 2023. LRH’s seven accredited physician training programs in the GME, along with one awaiting accreditation, “will be essential in how Lakeland Regional Health continues to grow and expand to meet the needs of our community and become a world-class academic medical center.”
At the same time, Winter Haven Hospital will graduate its first class of five family medicine residents in the summer of 2023. It partnered with Florida State University College of Medicine in 2018. The plan for the partnership was to create a program to recruit doctors to do their residencies in Polk County with the hope that they will remain in the area to increase the number of primary care physicians here.
“We are incredibly excited about the progress made over the past five years in the development and implementation of this program,” said residency program Director Dr. Nathan Falk. “We have brought in 19 outstanding young physicians to the area and eight outstanding faculty to support their growth. In addition, we have made an effort to improve mental health access in the community by developing a training site for an accredited clinical psychology program embedded within the residency.”
Lakeland Regional’s Graduate Medical Education Program
LRH continues to hire faculty and staff to fully design its GME program, all while renovating current space and building a new facility. But its biggest news may be that all but one program are now fully accredited as it moves toward its July 1, 2023, launch date.
“Lakeland Regional Health is committed to meeting the needs of our growing community. Our residency programs will be an integral part of our mission to promote discovery and education, and deliver the best outcomes and safest care by placing people at the heart of all we do,” Finnigan said.
GME Program Specifics
The accredited programs are: Internal Medicine, General Surgery, Psychiatry, Emergency Medicine, Transitional Year, Surgical Critical Care and Family Medicine. The only program that awaits accreditation is the Obstetrics and Gynecology Residency, which is in the process of development.
The GME program is designed to help alleviate the shortage of doctors in Polk County. This is an ongoing problem that was highlighted in the latest Community Needs Assessment. LRH expects 190 residents once the program is at full capacity.
“Our programs are designed to deliver hands-on learning and collaborative care to our residents,” she said. “Residents will be led and mentored by board-certified faculty members, experience training in our state-of-the-art facilities and be well-equipped to provide exceptional care in our community. We are excited to be actively interviewing candidates for the seven accredited programs.”
Residents will be exposed to “diverse patient populations, hands-on training and a robust curriculum, all while in a well-rounded training experience,” Finnigan said. “We are seeing a tremendous amount of interest in our programs and are receiving applications from very well-qualified applicants. We are hosting rotations for fourth-year medical students who show interest in spending time with our incredible faculty.” Medical student rotations started in June 2022.
LRH has received more than 3,700 applications for its residency programs and are interviewing candidates.
Along with the residency program, LRH has a “robust research program, one that is committed to finding better ways to treat illness and to improve quality of life in our community. Therefore, we are actively increasing our research and scholarly pursuits,” Finnegan said.
LRH has hired program and research leadership, physician faculty members and administrative and support staff to develop the residency programs, she said. “All of our team members are incredibly dedicated and committed to the success of our future residents and their experience at Lakeland Regional Health.”
Phase one of two resident lounges and call rooms have been completed. Plans are progressing for phase two of the resident lounge at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center. In addition, construction continues for the hospital’s new facility at Interstate 4 and Kathleen Road. “This will be a 20-acre, state-of-the-art site for education as the main location for our Family Medicine Residency program. This facility will provide primary and specialty care services to the northern part of Lakeland. For all programs, our hope is that the residents who complete their training will have enjoyed our community so much that they decide to stay and work here.”
In addition, LRH will retrofit an existing simulation lab later this year “to provide our residents with a comprehensive learning experience in a technologically advanced setting,” Finnigan said. “This will allow us to make space for additional high-fidelity simulators.”
Winter Haven Hospital’s Family Medicine Residency Program
Winter Haven Hospital started its program when studies showed county residents have difficulty accessing care and finding physicians. These results were due to a shortage of primary care doctors in the area. At the time, Polk County had 51 such doctors per 100,000 residents. It has since dropped into the 40s because of the continued influx of people to the county.
Nevertheless, the program is working and growing steadily. Of the five residents who will graduate in the summer, “one has signed an agreement to stay in Winter Haven with BayCare Medical Group (which owns Winter Haven Hospital) and the other four are evaluating multiple opportunities for practices in the county,” Falk said. That is helping to expand the county’s primary care physician workforce.
The hospital has “successfully recruited several core family medicine faculty, bringing six physicians, one clinical pharmacist and one clinical psychologist to the local area” as part of the fully accredited program, Falk said. “Our BayCare Medical Group clinic at 1201 First St. S. in Winter Haven is now fully operational, serving a wide range of patients with full-scope family medicine, including prenatal care and women’s health, pediatric care and adult medicine.”
BayCare has been working to expand offerings to patients of all ages and genders. “One area in particular where we have been a significant added benefit to the community is through improving access to prenatal obstetrical care and pediatric care,” Falk said. “With the shortage of OB/GYN physicians in the area, we have been able to serve over 100 women and their families through prenatal care and expect to be delivering our 100th baby as a program at Winter Haven Women’s Hospital later this fall.”
As more residents graduate from the residency program, the number of primary care doctors is likely to increase, Falk said. “As the population growth continues, programs like ours will be increasingly important to help bolster the medical community through direct training and retention, and recruiting new physicians to the local area.”