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Health care choices in Southwest Florida are about to become a lot more plentiful. The major hospital systems in the area all have expansions and new projects either underway or in the works, and other local health care providers also keep growing as the region itself does. 

According to figures from the Lee County Economic Development Office, Southwest Florida has a population of about 1.4 million, an increase of 21.5% since 2010. From 2020 to 2025, the population is expected to increase by another 12.3%. All those new residents will need access to health care, everything from pediatricians to ICU beds.

“In Southwest Florida, we are growing at a pretty rapid rate,” says Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health, one of the largest nonprofit public health systems in Florida. “As the community continues to grow, we feel the need to grow with the community.”

A significant chunk of the local population is made up of residents ages 55 and older, and retirees keep flocking to the Sunshine State. Folks in that age group tend to require more medical care than younger residents, so health care providers must keep up specifically with that population, as well. 

“As more people enter into their senior years and become Medicare eligible, they use hospitals more and need more health services,” says Ben Spence, chief financial and business services officer for Lee Health. 

Additions and expansions of service lines, treatment options and technology are also driving growth at local hospital systems. Fawcett Memorial Hospital in Port Charlotte, for example, has expanded its neurosciences, orthopedic and spine, cardiovascular and pulmonology service lines, and will be kicking off a $60 million expansion to help support those services. “As we’re growing and expanding our service lines, we need that capacity,” says Michael Ehrat, CEO of Fawcett Memorial Hospital, an HCA Healthcare facility.

Here’s a look at some of the major health care expansions and projects going on in the area, and what they’ll mean for the community when completed.

Lee Health

Lee Health is expanding in several different parts of the county. In Cape Coral, the health care system is investing nearly $150 million in several different projects aimed at expanding health care access in that growing part of Lee County.

At Cape Coral Hospital, the intensive care unit (ICU) will expand from 22 beds to 34, and the emergency department will grow to include six additional treatment bays and a 12-bed observation unit. The timeline for that project is about 12 to 18 months.

Lee Health also purchased 22.7 acres of land on Pine Island Road in Cape Coral. Early-stage plans are to build a facility similar to Lee Health Coconut Point, which offers 24-hour emergency care, outpatient surgery, imaging, a pharmacy and offices for primary care, pediatrics, women’s care and specialist physicians. “We look forward to really getting into the details of that so it can be something truly special for that area,” says Spence.

There are also plans to construct a new building at the Bimini Basin site that will include medical offices with apartment units located above. “Cape Coral has tremendous opportunities still for growth in land that is still undeveloped,” says Spence. “As Cape Coral continues to grow and be a destination—not just for seniors to come to retire, but for families, too—we know that we’re going to need to expand access to health care services.”

Lee Health also recently announced that it’s beginning the process of planning for a new hospital campus within the city of Fort Myers on 52 acres of land along Challenger Boulevard between Colonial Boulevard and Winkler Avenue. Currently being called the “Lee Health Colonial Campus,” it’s expected to include an acute care hospital with 216 beds, 16 operating rooms, a 30-bay emergency department and a 16-bed observation unit, along with a medical office building and other services.

The need for that project stems from the fact that Lee Memorial Hospital is an aging facility with limitations when it comes to the additions of new technology and equipment. The ceilings in that 53-year-old building, for example, aren’t tall enough for some new high-tech radiology and operating room equipment that Lee Health would like to use.

Lee Health wants to maintain a strong presence in the city of Fort Myers, and overhauling Lee Memorial while it still functions as a hospital wasn’t an option. So Lee Memorial will keep operating as-is for the next five years or so as the new campus is being permitted and built, and then Lee Health will develop a new use for it once the new hospital is open.

“We know Lee Memorial is nearing the end of its useful life,” says Antonucci. “We really wanted to find another space that we could utilize and build a state-of-the-art facility on as we reimagine what could happen to Lee Memorial.”

Physicians Regional Healthcare System

Physicians Regional Healthcare System remains on a growth trajectory that began in 2020 with the launch of an open-heart program and the addition of treatment for a kind of severe heart attack known as STEMI at the system’s Collier Boulevard campus. Now the Naples-based health care system—which also has a Pine Ridge Road campus—is working to grow its musculoskeletal services, entering into an agreement with Healthcare Outcomes Performance Company to collaborate on care plans for musculoskeletal patients.

Physicians Regional is also taking over operations of Landmark Hospital of Southwest Florida, a 50-bed, long-term acute care hospital with four operating suites. This move will give Physicians Regional a third facility in the northern part of Naples, where it can focus on its musculoskeletal services and offer an inpatient rehabilitation unit. “It’s a big opportunity for us to truly advance that service line,” says Scott Lowe, market chief executive officer of Physicians Regional Healthcare System. “We needed the extra space.”

Work is also underway to add 30 private licensed beds at the Collier campus and 78 private licensed beds, including 16 ICU/CVICU capable beds and a 12-bed observation unit, at the Pine Ridge campus by the end of 2022. Pine Ridge has some extra space to play with thanks to a new 100,000-square-foot building where physician practices previously housed in the hospital are relocating.

“We’ve had tremendous growth over 2020 and 2021,” says Lowe. “I think 2022 is going to be the culmination of a lot of our efforts. We’re pretty excited to be able offer these new services and new buildings to increase capacity for the community as a whole as it continues to grow and is looking for those options.”

HCA Healthcare

A $60 million, multi-phase expansion at Fawcett Memorial Hospital will get underway in early 2022. The project will expand the hospital’s critical care units and operating room space, increase the number of pre-operative treatment bays and create a new main lobby, registration areas and waiting rooms. The project includes a two-story addition on the front side of the hospital and, with an eye toward even more growth down the road, that addition is being designed to allow for two additional floors if needed in the future.

“To better serve our community and meet the needs of our community, we need to expand,” says Ehrat. “We need it now, but it’s a big project and it just takes a while.”

Fawcett Memorial Hospital is also building a freestanding emergency room in Cape Coral that’s expected to open in early 2022. The 24-hour facility will offer full emergency services, a laboratory, X-rays, CT scans and ultrasounds, and will be Fawcett’s first location in Lee County.

“We’re excited about that,” says Ehrat. “Cape Coral is a high-growth area, and we identified that as a need and way we can serve that community.”

In November 2021, HCA Florida Healthcare also announced plans for a new hospital in Fort Myers on an approximately 40-acre parcel of land at 3851 Colonial Blvd. The planned four-story, 275,870-square-foot facility will include an emergency room with two trauma rooms, a 16-bed intensive care unit with a 24-bed step-down unit, 54 medical, surgical and telemetry patient rooms and a women’s services unit with six labor and delivery rooms, a C-section OR and a nursery. The current price tag for the project stands at about $250 million, and the new hospital is expected to open by 2025.

The population growth in Southwest Florida was a major driver in HCA’s decision to open this new facility. The health care system also believes in the power of offering patients a choice, something that will be tested in real-world conditions, as Lee Health’s planned new Fort Myers hospital will be located nearby.

“We feel that in any given environment, there are a lot of benefits when people have choice,” says Dr. Ravi Chari, president of the HCA West Florida Division. “All health care systems get better, so their offerings are better. The communities have better access to care and the patients benefit. We believe our presence there will give people a choice, and everybody improves where there are choices.”

HCA and Fawcett Memorial also still own 100 acres of land in Estero purchased in 2018, but there are no current plans for that site. Both Ehrat and Chari said the health care system is still evaluating opportunities there.

“We preemptively, a lot of times, lock down land to give ourselves choices; we like choices too,” says Chari. “Having that land gives us certainly another choice as we look at providing services in that community.”

NCH Healthcare System

In June 2021, Robert J. Cubeddu became the new president of the NCH Heart Institute. In that role, he’ll be working to continue growing the cardiovascular program at NCH Healthcare System, a nonprofit health care system with two hospital locations in downtown Naples and North Naples.

That growth includes the addition of staff, efforts to increase patient access to cutting-edge clinical trials and the establishment of a cardiology fellowship training program. NCH is also in early stages of planning for a new cardiac tower for the Heart Institute.

“Through this heart center, our patients in the community will have access to cutting-edge technology in an integrated model that embraces outpatient and inpatient care with world-class physicians,” says Cubeddu. “Historically, many patients travel outside the county for care. Our goal and our commitment is to remedy this problem.”

NCH Heart Institute physicians have also been making use of NCH’s new Judith & Marvin Herb Family Simulation Center, the only multidisciplinary simulation center between Tampa and Miami. It allows hospital staff from a variety of disciplines to receive training using high-tech equipment that replicates real-world situations.

The Simulation Center is currently operating out of an 8,000-square-foot facility but will move into a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 10,000-square-foot space in mid-2022. Plans include opening up the center for use by local first responders and other health care providers in the future.

Encompass Health

Alabama-based Encompass Health is building freestanding inpatient rehabilitation hospitals in Naples (50 beds) and Cape Coral (40 beds), both of which will care for patients recovering from events such as strokes, brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations and complex orthopedic conditions.

The company felt the two cities were a good fit based on the area’s demographics. The area has a growing population and also serves as a popular retirement destination, a good match for Encompass Health, whose typical patient population is over the age of 65. The company also saw an unmet need in the region.

“Through market research, we identified that both Cape Coral and Naples were two locations that are under-served for this type of service,” says Lori Bedard, regional president of Encompass Health’s Southeast Region. “Both hospitals will complement existing acute care services offered in the community and provide easier access to the continuum of care for many patients who are ready to leave the acute care setting but are not yet ready to return home.” 

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