It was not quite the grand opening of the new hospital on Palm Coast Parkway just yet. That’ll happen in early August. But AdventHealth Palm Coast hosted a prelude-like opening this afternoon as the medical office building next to the hospital was blessed and dedicated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by physicians, hospital executives and others.
The 30,000-square-foot medical office building opens to patients in two weeks, its specialists including surgeons, orthopedics, gastroenterology, urology, GYN, “and many other specialties that we’re still working through,” Wally De Aquino, CEO of the Palm Coast Parkway hospital, said.
De Aquino recalled how not so long ago, in September 2021, hospital personnel had gathered on the freshly leveled construction grounds to record what would be a virtual groundbreaking ceremony: the Covid pandemic was still raging, making large gatherings unwise. “But we are blessed today to be in person here celebrating the opening of this beautiful building, which will be the cornerstone for this campus,” De Aquino said.
Together with the new hospital the new campus will employ from 300 to 500 people, in addition to the 1,100 at the original campus on State Road 100. The new hospital will add 24 emergency-room beds to the 30 on State Road 100, where the emergency department tends to be overworked. The new hospital’s 99 beds will double the number of hospital beds in Palm Coast.
“This medical office building is just the beginning of a journey and we are dedicated to expanding our services and reaching even greater heights in the future,” Denyse Bales-Chubb, president and CEO of AdentHealth Palm Coast, said.
Ney Ramirez, staff chaplain at AdventHealth Palm Coast, blessed the new building before the ribbon-cutting, praying that it “may be used as a healing place for all people in this community,” and that its staffers are kept safe and serve “as an instrument of healing.”
How does an organization hire 300 to 500 people in an era of historically low unemployment? De Aquino said the hospital has been recruiting since last August, through fall and winter. “We feel that we’ve been blessed and I think it has to do with the reputation of AdventHealth on top of –Flagler County is a great place, right?” he said. “So our recruitment was very intentional. Every time there was a snowstorm during the winter up north we were intentional in putting pictures and showing the beach and bragging about that.”
Positions that were harder to fill were posted almost a year ago. In terms of leadership, 90 percent has been recruited, 85 percent of the clinical staff has–most of those already working–and over 70 percent of the non-clinical staff has been recruited. But the hospital did not have data indicating how many of those new hires were the product of local schools. “We did hire a few students from high school because they want to be a tech or they just want a lower level clinical position so they can learn more,” De Aquino said. “But I don’t have numbers.”
One of the new surgeons at the Palm Coast Parkway campus is Dr. Jessica Marshall, the county’s only female surgeon. She could have chosen to practice anywhere in the country, but chose Palm Coast. The reason: she grew up in Ormond Beach, went to Father Lopez High School in Volusia County, the University of South Florida and the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton.
“I really wanted to be back closer to family and friends, especially because I had a baby last year,” Marshall said. “So now that I have a family, I wanted to be able to raise her around her grandma, grandpa, cousins.” Marshall will be based at the new hospital but will, like other physicians, likely toggle between the two Palm Coast facilities as needed.
The recruiting process also provided a window into what recruits were looking for. Many were just interested in good employment, good pay with benefits. Others were looking for opportunities for themselves and their spouse. The vast majority, De Aquino said, were interested in good schools, good security, and good outdoor activities–biking, golfing, trails, the beach.
Technologically, the new building will be on the Epic system, a data-sharing network that enables patients from any health care network participating in EPIC to have their records available to local medical personnel, thus overcoming the previously unforgiving obstacles of accessing records from different locations. (Epic says it has the records of 305 million patients globally, including about 37 to 38 percent of patients in the United States.)
AdventHealth officials said the focus right now is to get the medical office building and the new hospital opened, but the company has historically had its eyes set on the next project, the next expansion, the next horizon. There were no disclosures to that effect today, but a few hints.
“We will be looking to expand into our northern markets, that’s one reason why we picked this hospital here,” Bales-Chubb said, “because as the patients continue to grow up north in the Palm Coast area, we need to have facilities that are available to them to access that care in a timely manner. We know that the county keeps expanding north, and we’ll be looking more as we continue to serve our community.”
In 2018 AdventHealth Palm Coast, then known as Florida Hospital Flagler, was planning to open a stand-alone emergency room at Matanzas Woods Parkway and I-95. Those plans were quietly shelved as the company opted to go bigger, with the new hospital–a move that in essence preempted Flagler Health+, the parent company of Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine, from following through with building its own hospital at U.S. 1 and Palm Coast Parkway.
Flagler Health + had bought that acreage at the end of 2021. A year later, those plans were dead, and Flagler Health was merging with UF Shands. That fervid activity reflects the competitive nature of the health care industry as various companies seek to protect and expand their markets. Flagler Health+ has made inroads in Flagler, but the county remains AdventHealth territory.
AdventHealth still has its eyes on the north end. “We will be evaluating what the communities surrounding those areas that we identify as possibilities and seeing what their needs would be,” Bales-Chubb said, “whether that be an offsite ED [emergency department], perhaps an ambulatory surgery center, perhaps a medical office building that’s going to house more physicians for them to access.” The aim is to limit traveling hauls for patients by providing services as near to them as possible.
Whenever the topic turns to hospitals, Palm Coast residents ask: when will the county have its own trauma center and its own maternity ward? Currently, Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach largely fills that role.
It will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Individual health care companies like AdventHealth have no authority to simply build a trauma center. That has to go through the state’s Certificate of Need, a regulatory process that determines where trauma centers may be located, based on population density. “Because those are heavily subsidized by the state for the care that they provide, you know, they tend to have those in more urban areas,” Bales-Chubb said. So Flagler County does not yet qualify for its own center. “We have partnerships with those hospitals, so that if there is a trauma, it gets transferred to that hospital immediately.”
Maternity wards are a different story. “We continue to do market analysis in our community on a yearly basis to determine what the needs are,” Bales-Chubb said. “While we are one of the fastest growing counties in the state of Florida right now, our fastest growing demographic is the 65-plus age group. So there’s just not the need at this point in time for adding those services because they would be a totally different line of service.”
Bales-Chubb oversees AdventHealth’s operations in Palm Coast, Flagler County and St. Johns. De Aquino will be reporting to her, in what will be his first role as CEO.
“It’s mixed feelings, right? It’s excitement, we want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for our community, and also I need to be open-minded, to always continue to learn,” the always modest De Aquino said. He recalled when he first started with AdventHealth locally in 2009, back when David Ottati was the CEO of the hospital and the landscape looked very different.
De Aquino worked locally for about five years, then took an assignment in the network in Orlando–but always commuted, with his home and family still in Flagler: his attachment to the community hasn’t waned. “It’s a great feeling to be able to grow with a wonderful company where you live. This is where my kids were born. This is where my kids are going to school.”