The orange and blue footprint of one of the state’s top-rated and largest health care systems continues to grow stronger since it stepped into The Villages two years ago. The University of Florida’s medical network — known as UF Health — is gradually increasing its contribution to making The Villages “America’s Healthiest Hometown.” UF Health’s introduction came in December 2019 with an announcement it would partner with The Villages to build an acute-care hospital here. But the big picture involves much more than just a hospital. In that moment, UF Health joined a quest with community partners to create a national model for expanding life expectancy through a healthy, active approach to living.
The future hospital, located in the southern portion of The Villages in Lake County, will anchor a 400-plus acre medical village, including academic research and health education with retirees as its beneficiaries, a medical residency program designed to attract and retain those committed to healing with the latest innovations, and housing nearby for doctors, nurses and other health care providers.
Mere days after that announcement, UF Health officials announced they would acquire the existing two hospitals already serving The Villages. They purchased Central Florida Health, which operated sister hospitals in The Villages and Leesburg. They proceeded to open a freestanding emergency room in Brownwood in January 2020.
It all was part of a plan to bring together UF Health’s vast care network and The Villages’ commitment to its residents.
“What we decided to do many years ago was find a connection between a university hospital and a community hospital that could get together and contemplate care in a different way,” UF Health CEO Ed Jimenez said of early planning talks. “And do better for our community.” Jimenez and his boss, Dr. David Nelson, senior vice president for health affairs at the University of Florida and president of UF Health, are now immersed in a circle of communication with others committed to high-quality health care here, as they increase UF Health’s footprint.
“We have these constant touch points that allow us to have on our radar things that we need to be focused on and allow us to convey information about things we’re working on,” Jimenez said.
“And it allows us to collectively plan for the future, so as we do that — with The Villages, with The Villages Health, with community physicians — we’re confident that we can aspire to the idea that tomorrow will be better than today, and today was better than yesterday.”
UF Health Central Florida Chief Operating Officer Heather Long pictures a big staircase in front of her, each step representing another milestone on the climb to achieving a higher level of care for the community.
“We’re probably on stair number six,” she said. “And we’re making a lot of continuing improvements each day.”
After having a year and a half to assess their acquisition of Central Florida Health, Nelson and Jimenez brought Long onboard last June to direct improvements at UF Health The Villages Hospital and UF Health Leesburg Hospital.
Long moved quickly with some initiatives, including adding Linda Cason as the associate vice president of emergency services last August. Cason’s focus is to increase efficiency in the emergency department, which Long calls “the hospital’s front door.” A few short months later, Long and Cason introduced a new fast track program at the Leesburg hospital, with plans to bring it to The Villages as well. Cason told the Daily Sun the program is designed to get patients who don’t require hospital admission seen quicker, treated faster and home sooner.
While the hospital has a good working relationship with doctors in the community, it also is developing a physician group of its own. Last April, UF Health added to its team three local cardiovascular surgeons with a combined 16,000 open heart procedures in the last 22 years. A fourth surgeon has joined the team since the initial announcement.
UF Health also has teams in orthopedics and women’s health, seeing patients locally in Summerfield.
Long recently spoke before the membership of The Villages Homeowners Advocates group, emphasizing a push toward enhanced quality health care and a focus on her staff’s purpose.
“We are reigniting our teams with passion and purpose in connecting them with the why — why they became a health care professional,” Long said.
She said the hospitals are on the right path.
“That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to be a journey,” she said. “There is no reason why The Villages hospital can’t be a four- or five-star hospital, and I’m leaning five-star, with the right team and right processes.”
Orange and Blue
The signature colors are displayed prominently at what is dubbed the Southeast’s most comprehensive academic health center and one of the top five public research universities in the nation.
UF Health includes the colleges of medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, public health and health professions, and veterinary medicine, as well as the UF Health Shands network of hospitals, including UF Health Jacksonville, UF Health The Villages Hospital, UF Health Leesburg Hospital and flagship UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
In Gainesville alone, patients from across the country and internationally are cared for by some 900 faculty doctors in 100 specialty and subspecialty areas of practice.
The hospital consistently is recognized in annual rankings of top specialties, including cancer, heart care, women and children’s services, neuromedicine specialties and transplants.
In its first year of operation in 1958, doctors at UF Health Shands Hospital performed Florida’s first cardiac catheterization. More pioneering medical endeavors followed, such as the first Florida open-heart surgery, first adult and child kidney transplants, first total hip replacement, first heart and artificial heart transplants, as well as the country’s first embryonic tissue transplant for spinal cord repair.
The firsts continue today in the areas of genetic therapy, bionic eyes and new techniques to refine age-old practices.
UF Health Shands Hospital admits more than 55,000 inpatients per year and saw more than 131,000 patients in its emergency department and Level I trauma center last year.
Researchers at UF brought us nasal sprays for flu vaccines, the use of genetics to shape treatment plans, creating bandages that have a coating to ward off antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and lab-grown skin grafts for burn patients, just to name a few.
With their two-years-and-growing connection with this medical powerhouse, the hospitals in The Villages and Leesburg can tap into that expertise and experience of tertiary care, or the highest level.
For example, stroke care has been elevated with access to and enhanced communication with UF Health Shands Hospital.
“Doctors here have an intimate connection to doctors in Gainesville,” Jimenez said.
UF Health recently positioned one of its ShandsCair helicopters at The Villages hospital, enabling quick transportation of critically ill or injured patients to the highest level of care. For instance, it provides urgent transport for stroke patients in distress, getting them to Shands’ primary stroke care center.
“Time is brain,” Jimenez said of the urgency of getting critical stroke patients in front of his leading team of professionals for rapid intervention and treatment.
“That helicopter is symbolic of giving hope where sometimes that hope isn’t clear,” he added of ShandsCair’s ability to serve as an “ICU in the air” for stroke and other critically injured or ill patients.
Overall, the connection between the flagship hospital and its university to the two local community hospitals is strong, Jimenez said.
“We had developed a connection among the campuses early on and that allowed these things to function very nimbly,” he said. “I would say the first thing that has happened is underneath the surface we’ve become an honest and true health system. The second thing we’ve done is we’ve figured out those areas we need to pay attention to deeply and think about how to improve whatever that is.”
UF Health & The Villages
Being in The Villages means more than just running a hospital. It means joining an allegiance of community medical partners committed to providing care to the residents so significant, it is a national model for health care for seniors.
“We recognize that being a hospital in The Villages comes with it the responsibility to take care of the residents,” Jimenez said. “But it also comes with the responsibility to be in sync with how the community grows and develops and its aspirations. So our leadership team is constantly meeting with others in the community.”
Nelson meets with The Villages President and CEO Mark Morse; and Jimenez, Long and Dr. Kevin Behrens, the chief medical officer for UF Health Central Florida, meet with The Villages’ leadership team as well, Jimenez said.
UF Health’s presence is the latest in a series of moves designed to allow The Villages to continue its pledge to its residents.
Mark Morse said the health care enhancements “represent our family’s ongoing commitment to the vision — first shared by grandpa Harold Schwartz and my dad, Gary Morse — that Villagers enjoy the very best health care right here in ‘America’s Healthiest Hometown.’”
The Villages Health, which is the community’s largest primary care provider with seven primary care centers along with two more centers home to medical specialists, is focused on “patient-centered” health care in which patient and primary care work together to handle medical needs, but if specialists are required, they are available.
One of those specialty care centers is located in the Center for Advanced Healthcare at Brownwood, which brings specialty medical providers together under one roof, creating a destination to serve a variety of health care needs. Providers offer medical imaging, oncology, ophthalmology, rehabilitation, pharmacy and more.
The building also is home to Aviv Clinic in The Villages, which has attracted global attention for its hyperbaric oxygen treatment.
Peer-reviewed published studies from Aviv founders documented HBOT’s positive results at improving, or seemingly reversing, “old age” cognitive decline. Additional studies were done to show effectiveness of the treatment for stroke care, mild cognitive impairment, athletic performance, and perhaps long-haul COVID-19.
The future wellness village site, to be located along Florida’s Turnpike and near County Road 470 in Lake County, is proposed to have research facilities along with UF Health’s future hospital, providing another reason The Villages could be a desired health care destination as the UF Health footprint in the community widens.
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