Sacred Heart Emerald Coast
Bringing Healthcare to our Growing Communities

Scott T. Jackson,
MindLace Media & Photo
Published in Climate Magazine Jul - Aug 2002
Vol 13, Issue 4
(Index of Other Articles)



As our communities grow and prosper key cornerstones of their infrastructure must adapt to accommodate growing demand. Telecommunications, roads, water & sewer, healthcare services, police & fire, and power needs migrate towards shifting demographics and demand. Eventually a point is reached where another building block of infrastructure must simply be built. It is not enough to just add a new addition – another key pillar must be built outright. The building of a new hospital is about as common as the building of a new airport – a rarity. The building of the new Sacred Heart Emerald Coast hospital in South Walton County is one of those a rare occurrences but necessary to ensuring adequate healthcare is provided to the public.

But the path to getting the hospital created was strewn with obstacles even before the first shovel of dirt was turned, requiring a Herculean effort by Sacred Heart and the community to get through the approval process and begin construction.

"In 1998, Sacred Heart was asked by citizens in Okaloosa and Walton counties to build a health care facility in the south end of Walton County," said Sacred Heart Health System Vice President and COO, William McLaughlin. "This area once had its own hospital, but with the closing of the former Destin Hospital in 1994, area residents lacked quick access to hospital care. The access problem has become worse with growing traffic congestion along Highway 98, the primary east-west traffic route along the Emerald Coast. The biggest concern of area residents has been access to hospital-based emergency/trauma services. Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast addresses this community need with plans for a 50-bed community hospital that includes a 24-hour Emergency Department."

In advance of the hospital’s construction the air ambulance service, "AIRHeart", was established on Nov 1, 2001 at a temporary base in South Walton County. This service, jointly sponsored by the South Walton Fire District, has enhanced the ability of emergency response personnel to quickly transport a critically injured patient to a trauma center according to Mr. McLaughlin. But getting the air service in place was procedurally "small potatoes compared to the bureaucratic gauntlet that awaited Sacred Heart.

"The process of obtaining state approval via the certificate of need process was a major hurdle," noted Mr. McLaughlin. "We had to call on the support of the community, and the community responded in a big way. We submitted an application to the State of Florida in October 1999 for a certificate of need for a 50-bed hospital in Walton County. We received preliminary approval in December 1999, with the state Agency for Health Care Administration acknowledging that the project was needed. However, that preliminary approval was challenged by two for-profit hospitals in Fort Walton Beach and Niceville."

Mr. McLaughlin acknowledges how critical community education and support were to this effort. "Led by the Walton County Chamber of Commerce community volunteers and civic groups, the residents of the Emerald Coast supported a petition drive and a purple ribbon campaign to show support for the proposed hospital. In March 2000, the challenge was dropped and Sacred Heart gained final approval from the state a month later."

But after winning that challenge there were other hurdles – construction and funding.

"The actual construction has gone smoothly," according to Mr. McLaughlin. "Once we were able to get all government permits, including one required by the Army Corps of Engineers, we were able to start clearing land in July 2001. The construction remains on schedule for completion in late December 2002."

Regarding funding the first phase of the Sacred Heart Foundation campaign sought to raise $10 million in gifts and pledges by June 30, 2002 – approximately half the cost of the hospital. "As of now, we have $6 million in gifts and firm pledges, and we have another $3.8 million in verbal pledges that we feel will turn into firm commitments," says Mr. McLaughlin.

The new facility is being built with an eye towards aesthetic appeal as well as future growth – the architectural plan blends with the environment and soft tone of South Walton County. But more importantly it is designed to adapt to the growing population of this area. Mr. McLaughlin notes, "The building has two stories, but it has been built so that the floor for a third level is already in place. When we are ready to expand, we will be able to jack up the roof, install girders, and put the roof back down."

Mr. McLaughlin expects the hospital to employ from 200 to 250 employees initially. However, the hospital’s impact on the economy will reach much further. Mr. McLaughlin expects millions of dollars to be captured by local businesses. And if the hospital reaches its anticipate operating budget of $50 million in five years he expects even more.

Local residents will appreciate the convenience of a nearby facility given the options of wending their way through traffic, typically exacerbated in tourist season, to get to a facility.

"All of us in the Sandestin area are excited and comforted by the arrival of the much anticipated Sacred Heart Hospital," says resident Carey Dowdle, whose mother requires follow-up care in wake of treatment for ovarian cancer. Ms. Dowdle also lamented the long ambulance ride her father required to get to a facility as well as the tedious trips to another provider where her mother could be treated. She adds, "We are comforted by the location and staff of this very welcome, desperately needed and strongly supported hospital to South Walton County."

The establishment of healthcare services in South Walton County must certainly adapt to the characteristics of the population and its needs.

Mr. McLaughlin notes, "This is a growing part of the state, and the community and our partners at St. Joe/ARVIDA need a strong health care infrastructure to support the growth expected to occur between Destin and Panama City.

But more than the sheer numbers of people a new hospital must contend with it must also understand the community’s "health profile".

Mr. McLaughlin adds, "With the large number of retirees and military personnel along the Emerald Coast, we have a large population of people who are moving in and out of the area at various times of the year. Many retirees reside here only part-time, and may have their primary care doctors in other states. This ‘transient’ population tends to rely more on Emergency Department services because they are not established as patients of a local family doctor. We also have noticed that many residents along the Emerald Coast are very interested in living a healthy lifestyle, which is a positive factor and one we can build on in encouraging the community to maintain good health."

Some of the specialties Sacred Heart plans to provide include heart and vascular disease, cancer, orthopedics and pediatrics. Mr. McLaughlin also noted how Sacred Heart has adapted to the latest technology. "Sacred Heart Health System has seen tremendous progress in medical technology and especially our ability to perform minimally invasive surgery. As a result of these changes, patients are able to have surgery in a manner that is less painful, leaves less of a scar, and allows for much faster recovery for the patient. Minimally invasive or endoscopic surgical techniques are now used to do everything from coronary bypass surgery, to repair of hernias and injured knees, to removal of the appendix, gallbladder or uterine fibroids."

But the marriage of technology and healthcare is still enjoying a long honeymoon. Sacred Heart has vigorously pursued advances such as telemedicine and medical robotics to keep on the edge of state-of-the-art medical practices.

The growing region between Destin and Panama City will clearly benefit when Sacred Heart Emerald Coast opens its doors. And with the new air ambulance in service covering a 75-mile radius from the hospital outlying communities will have quicker responses for emergency care.

Note: After publication Roger Hall became the CEO of Sacred Heart Emerald Coast.  The hospital opened in January 2003. Aerial photo taken Feb 14, 2003.

Scott Jackson

© 2002 Scott Jackson


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