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Health care recruitment ramps up in Sussex County

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Dr. Muhammad H. Tahir treats a patient at Bayhealth Hospital, Sussex Campus. The Dover-based health care system is one of many thinking about how to recruit and retain doctors as they expand in Sussex County. | PHOTO COURTESY BAYHEALTH

Newcomers to Sussex County share a similar concern: access to health care. For proof, peruse local social media groups. “Who is the best doctor for an Achilles tendon repair?” one person asks on Facebook. Another wants a dermatologist, and a third needs an ENT doctor near Seaford.

Finding a doctor is one thing. Landing an appointment is another. The county’s population explosion, which includes many retirees with chronic conditions, has outpaced the supply of providers. However, health care systems that service the county are actively recruiting to meet the demand — and the pace has increased.

“At the end of the day, we can have beautiful buildings, but if we don’t have good, high-quality physicians who will stay in the area, beautiful buildings won’t do us any good,” said Dr. David Tam, CEO and president of Beebe Healthcare.

When Tam joined the system in March 2020, he moved recruitment under the CEO’s office.

“We had shortages across the spectrum,” he recalled. “I started heavily recruiting.”

According to data published in June by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in primary and specialty care.

“We are all experiencing the same dearth of talent,” said Francis DiBari, director of provider recruitment, onboarding and retention for TidalHealth, formed by the merger of Nanticoke Health Services in Seafood and Salisbury, Md.-based Peninsula Regional Medical Group.

In Delaware, the ratio of physicians to patients is higher in New Castle County, said Dr. Gary Siegelman, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Bayhealth. In Kent and Sussex counties, there is a pressing need for primary care physicians and certain specialists, including endocrinologists who commonly treat diabetes patients.

In these counties, the number of primary care physicians has changed little in 20 years, Siegelman said. The population, however, has not. Between 2010 and 2019, Sussex County’s population increased nearly 19%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The growth is not limited to the coast. Millsboro is the county’s fastest-growing town.

Beebe Healthcare, founded in 1916, was once Sussex County’s primary source of medical care. But TidalHealth is moving eastward. Dover-based Bayhealth gained a firmer foothold with the opening of Bayhealth Hospital, Sussex Campus, in Milford.

The good news is that Sussex County has become more attractive to providers, recruiters agree. New doctors along the coast no longer feel isolated in winter; there is a year-round population. Since the pandemic, many established physicians want an alternative to city life. DiBari has witnessed an uptick in providers reaching out to Tidal Health.

“I have folks who are looking for more space and a place to raise their family that’s safe,” he said.

When it comes to discovering southern Delaware’s charms, medical personnel are not alone. Consequently, the local real estate boom has created a lack of affordable housing.

“We are trying to figure out temporary housing,” said Shana Ross, vice president of human resources for Bayhealth. “Are there apartment complexes we can partner with? Are there dorms?”

Housing is more important now that all three health care systems are implementing residency programs. Bayhealth recently started graduate education programs in family medicine and internal medicine. A surgical residency will begin in 2022.

Beebe Healthcare’s family practice residency, which will start in 2023, is led by an experienced director, Dr. Joyce Robert, from Nassau County, N.Y.

TidalHealth is implementing an internal medicine program in Salisbury, which will include rounds at Sussex County locations. The health care system will also have a general surgery residency.

“My recruitment strategy is to make sure our hospital programs are sound for general surgery and that the ambulatory sites are supported,” DiBari said.

The residencies are a smart move. Research shows that physicians often practice where they completed their residency. As a result, they might spend their careers in the same place, Tam noted. But he’s also interested in recruiting seasoned providers who are “experts” in their field. One example is Dr. Diana Dickson-Witmer, a specialist in breast surgery and oncology.

Boosting access to care also involves location.

“Residents in Sussex County don’t want to drive 30 or 40 minutes to see their primary care physician,” Siegelman said.

Bayhealth is building a 50,000-square-foot site at the intersection of Route 9 and Hudson Road. The Milton-are facility will offer emergency services, urgent care, diagnostic testing, primary care and specialty practices.

Meanwhile, Beebe seeks to put a health campus in Millsboro.
“It’s part of our goal of having campuses across the county,” Tam said.

TidalHealth is also expanding in Millsboro.

Are there too many health care systems competing for the residents? Not the way DiBari sees it.

“I think competition is good,” he maintained. “It raises the bar on medical care.”

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