[caption id="attachment_222289" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Atlantic General Hospital has stepped up its recruitment efforts from just over the Maryland border, renting billboards like this in Sussex County. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING[/caption]
FENWICK ISLAND — As building booms in eastern Sussex County, Delaware health care systems are racing to build new facilities, attract employees and offer new services. They are increasingly facing more competition too, as one Maryland hospital is quietly campaigning for Delaware doctors and patients from over the state's southern border.Atlantic General Hospital (AGH) in Berlin, Md. — less than 10 miles south of Selbyville — has been expanding into southern Delaware for almost a decade, reaching out to meet the patients closest to the hospital but over state lines. The health care system has one hospital in Berlin, but many primary care and specialty offices in Delaware’s beach communities south of Rehoboth Beach.
[caption id="attachment_222290" align="alignleft" width="200"] Tim Whetstine | PHOTO COURTESY OF AGH[/caption]
“We’ve got pins in the map, if you will, in West Fenwick, Selbyville and Ocean View,” AGH Vice President of Practice Administration Timothy Whetstine told Delaware Business Times.State lines may mean very little when it comes to patients and doctors, as the lure of working, living and retiring at “the beach” can be strong, no matter the drive to reach the ocean itself.As the region grows, AGH has engaged in outreach to reassure residents considering an AGH doctor in Delaware. The hospital undertook a billboard campaign along major roads like U.S. Route 113 reminding Delaware residents that even though the closest hospital might be in another state, they’re welcome there. “[It’s] really more of an effort to educate Delaware residents that even if they reside in Delaware and are a patient of a Delaware provider, AGH is often the most convenient hospital to receive outpatient, emergency and inpatient care,” AGH Vice President of Communications Toni Keiser added.AGH reported that Delaware residents make up 24% of emergency room visits and 18% of hospital admissions and 20% of visits to the satellite health system, such as physician practices. Keiser said that perception surveys that the hospital sponsored showed that even though AGH was the closest hospital, some patients were hesitant to cross the state line for care.Ensuring that people know where they can get the care they need is a crucial step. Making sure the AGH health system has the qualified staff to meet the communities needs is just as important, though.Whetstine is responsible for making sure there are quality caregivers for patients once they get to any of the hospital’s facilities, no matter the state. “Physician recruitment is always challenging and especially in rural communities,” Whetstine said. Even before the pandemic, the health care professionals market was competitive. Recruiting highly qualified doctors and advanced practitioners, such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners, can be a tough assignment, and not just for AGH.Beebe Healthcare and Bayhealth, the two largest Delaware-based health systems in Sussex County, also are competing for the best available candidates. TidalHealth, with hospitals in Seaford and Salisbury, Md., is making inroads in northern Worcester County, Md., as well as in central and southern Sussex.Although there’s no lack of competition for health care professionals, when it comes to getting out the message about the opportunities in southern Delaware, though, the pitch gets a little bit easier. “I think this is one of the best kept secrets,” Whetstine said of the area. While the tax and retirement benefits of moving to the area might not be much of a secret, access to broader culture might not be top-of-mind for prospective candidates. The local food and arts scenes as well as the highly regarded public school systems are something Whetstine highlights as he pitches new recruits.Whetstine himself is a Delaware resident and commutes about a half hour to his office at AGH. He noted the massive amount of residential growth both east and west of Route 113, and the various independent communities popping up within the towns AGH serves.Beyond the beach lifestyle, these ancillary factors and temperate climate make up a significant part of the appeal.While recruiting people who are finishing up their residencies is a given, AGH has also had success with mid-career physicians looking to make a change. Doctors that are 10 or even 20 years out of their residencies are finding their way to southern Delaware to raise their families and finish out their careers.