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Strength in Numbers

With the national shortage of health care providers affecting Florida’s doctors, nurses, specialists and more, medical professionals are doing everything they can to avert those incoming issues—and minimize the challenges that patients are already experiencing.

It’s no small task ensuring that Central Florida residents have access to the high-quality health care they deserve. From primary care physicians to nurse practitioners (NPs) to dedicated specialists, it takes all kinds of medical providers to create a wide-reaching, all-encompassing network that can treat and diagnose the issues and illnesses that require immediate care, anticipate future needs and tend to the overall health of a population that ranges in ages, needs, demographics, incomes and reality of access.

But even before the pandemic both initiated a southern migration in the rest of the country—The Sunshine State is currently the nation’s third-most populous state, and the Orlando region remains especially attractive to new residents—and COVID placed an incredible strain on health care systems everywhere, Florida was already feeling the pains of a provider shortage that’s predicted to get worse.

“There’s a lot of solid information about that created by the American College of Physicians, which I’m the governor of in the state of Florida, and also from the American Association of Medical Colleges, which has produced many, many reports on the physician shortage over many years and the pipeline being created for management,” says Dr. George Everett, academic chair, Internal Medicine Residency, AdventHealth Orlando and regional campus dean for the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, AdventHealth Orlando campus.

He continues: “One thing I will say is that while there is a shortage, there is growth in physician numbers over time, per population in the United States, although that is very maldistributed across the different states and different locales. That, in many ways, is as much of the issue as the shortage is. … There was also quite a bit of dropout that we’ve not yet measured accurately related to COVID, and there’s going to be some very interesting information there.”

That national shortage’s impact on Florida is additionally driven by factors like how rural areas are notoriously underserved since health care providers tend to prefer living in more metropolitan regions for their own quality of life. While Martha McGill, president of the Central Florida region for Nemours Children’s Health, notes that Orlando itself is “easy to recruit in,” it’s markedly more difficult to attract top talent in smaller towns. One way the Nemours team has proactively responded is by aggressively ramping up the benefits it offers to employees both living and working in those regions.

“Our primary care locations were impacted the most by that since they are distributed all through the market,” she says. “And some of those locations are kind of isolated, and we have struggled. But one of the things we’ve done is we’ve looked at our compensation, recognizing that inflation is real for the people that work for Nemours. And we’re paying them at top of the market: We expect people to work at top of the market, so we’re going to compensate them at the top of the market.”

It’s also an issue amplified by the ages of both patients and providers, as an older population that requires more attention, care and health resources will begin to butt up against a staggering number of providers who are rapidly approaching retirement age.

“The physician population in the state of Florida is older than the average of many other states: The proportion over 60 years old is now more than a third, and that means that there’s going to be dropout,” Dr. Everett explains.

That’s made bolstering the numbers of young talent in the field an especially timely and immediate concern that established care providers are already addressing—after all, as Dr. Everett points out, “the training location matters a lot,” noting that more than 50% of trainees reside in close proximity to their last training site.

It’s an effort that not only helps the student-to-provider pipeline generate greater numbers of graduates without compromising the quality of care they’re able to provide, but also proactively identifies the issues that are threatening to become bigger ones if they’re left unresolved.

“As it relates to the academic and the education side of it, the concern becomes when we’re not able to place our PAs [physician assistants] and our NPs in education programs alongside physicians for their clinicals, then we’re not training the next generation and it’s just compounding the impact of shortages of clinical persons in our system,” says Deena Slockett, EdD, interim provost and senior vice president of operational strategy and learning at AdventHealth University. “Physicians then carry a larger burden to access: We’ve all been to a doctor, we’ve all seen how quickly appointments fill up or how long we have to wait for an appointment. That also means current physicians don’t have time to train other physicians or PAs or nurse practitioners.”

Working with students and young providers also ensures that older, more established clinicians, nurses and other providers can pass along their careers-long wisdom to the next generation.

“There’s an opportunity for anyone as they near their retirement to think about how they can almost diversify their career portfolio,” notes Dr. Slockett. “We love to create dual-appointment roles for physicians, for nurses, for anyone that has a match to our programs where we can allow them to do some teaching, or some opportunities for guest lectures, things that they can come in and bring their expertise for, because it almost rejuvenates someone to be able to take a step away from the demands of clinical practice and be able to share their knowledge in new ways.”

And with areas like Orlando offering incredible cultural and societal diversity, the push to cultivate a medical talent pool reflecting the wide swath of individuals they serve is an additional priority for the region’s health care systems.

“Orlando attracts a diverse population, and we serve a diverse population,” McGill begins. “So it’s important that our workforce also reflects the children and families that we serve, and we’ve been able to do that very nicely. We’re very purposeful with our training program’s diversity, as well: If you were to see our graduates standing on the stage, it’s a picture reflecting our community.”

If concerted efforts aren’t made to ensure that medical providers aren’t pushed beyond their capacity to do a complicated, emotionally demanding and important job well, the repercussions to Central Floridians are many. As Dr. Slockett points out, seeking treatment becomes a waiting game, which is among the most immediately apparent consequences that an uptick in training hopes to thwart.

“I think the bottom line is access,” agrees Dr. Everett. “That is the key issue, access to services that are necessary and medically appropriate. … The state of Florida is among the most rapidly growing states in the country, so I think that’s a very strong driving force for advancement of educational facilities of all kinds. Just look at the growth of the universities in the state of Florida over the last 20 years: It’s been quite dramatic, and that has also triggered the advancement of medical schools of various kinds, both DO and MD, and other training programs, including residency programs and including our colleagues in nurse practitioner and PA schools.”

In the meantime, strengthened relationships, shared resources, and both tapping into and cross-training the full scope of talent available within an organization remain at the forefront of ensuring that the region’s medical professionals can continue offering world-class care right in our own backyard without burning themselves out and further exacerbating the looming shortage of health care professionals.

That includes providing mental health resources to the region’s medical professionals. After all, doctors becoming the patients themselves if their own concerns and critical capacities go ignored will only put a further strain on a near-capacity talent pool tasked with keeping their neighbors healthy, both mentally and physically—which means that taking the idea of overall well-being seriously is a critical consideration for every health care system.

“While it is a very rewarding field to be in, it is stressful and it became more stressful during COVID,” says McGill. “We created an entire department that is richly resourced and really focusing on [employees’] mental health while working to combat burnout, enhance their resiliency, and then just making sure they understand how valued they are. If you invest in your team and in your people, you’re going to see a return on that investment—everybody’s going to benefit from that.”

And as the region’s hospitals and smaller practices endeavor to support their teams to help them weather the worst of a shrinking talent pool’s impacts, they also look to community involvement as an effective avenue for continually meeting the needs of the neighbors they’ve dedicated their careers to.

“It’s not one direction, we’re not just looking for people to come to us,” says Dr. Slockett. “We’re looking to see how can we invest ourselves in the community, make sure that we’re giving quality care to all people and access to everyone in the multiple ways in which AdventHealth designs their health care system to be accessible and affordable.”