Winter Haven Hospital’s new Family Medicine Residency program — in partnership with Florida State University College of Medicine and BayCare Medical Group — recently gained accreditation and opened its Family  Health Center.

In 2018, Winter Haven Hospital announced it was partnering with FSU to create a program that recruits doctors to complete their residencies in Polk County. After, those doctors would be encouraged to remain in the area, thereby improving access to care by increasing the number of primary care physicians in the county.

More people ages 18 to 64 are insured in Polk County than the state average, but some have difficulty accessing care and finding physicians here. Program director Dr. Nathan Falk said a large part of that is because of a shortage of primary care doctors in the area. Polk County has 51 such doctors per 100,000 residents compared with an average of 80 in Florida and 88 in the nation.

A year ago, when Falk started as the program’s first director, he said one important task to complete was gaining accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) – this goal was achieved in October.

Two other goals were recruiting faculty and opening a primary care clinic. The clinic at 1201 First St. South in Winter Haven opened in August. Three FSU faculty members work full time as family medicine physicians at the clinic, where residents can make appointments for wellness checks, women’s health visits, sports physicals and more. The clinic will hold an open house on Nov. 14.

“It’s been a steady journey to get to this point,” Dr. Falk said. “The current faculty and I are ready to switch gears and start the next chapter of this endeavor.”

Next Steps for Residency Program

Now that the three-year program has been accredited, it can begin recruiting and accepting residents. Starting in July 2020, it will have six residents in each class. If there’s a need for more than six, the national average, Falk has said he will try to find funding to expand.

“The program will be excited to welcome the first group of residents,” said Dr. Joan Meek, associate dean for graduate medical education at the FSU College of Medicine. “The need for primary care physicians is acute in Florida, especially in more rural communities.”

Meek said the accreditation will allow the family medicine residency program to positively impact health-care outcomes and improve access to primary-care physicians in the community.

“The residents will have the opportunity to receive their training in underserved areas of the state. Hopefully, many will continue to practice in the Winter Haven community after completion of their residency training.”

About 75 percent of residents remain in the areas where they did their residencies. If this program follows the trend, people in Polk will have access to a growing number of primary care physicians.

“Not only does this residency program improve access to health care for residents of Polk County, it also provides educational and economic benefits for the whole community,” said Steve Nierman, Winter Haven Hospital president and BayCare market leader for Polk County.

“We are grateful to the community support we have received in developing this program and are well on our way to enhancing the availability and delivery of family medicine.”

For additional information about this topic or how to become a partner with the Central Florida Development Council, please contact Lindsay Zimmerman at lindsay@cfdc.org.