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ChristianaCare to open first Sussex primary care office

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ChristianaCare, the state’s largest hospital system, has announced it will open its first primary care office in Sussex County, designed to serve the growing older population. | PHOTO COURTESY CHRISTIANACARE

REHOBOTH BEACH — ChristianaCare, the largest Delaware health care system based in northern Delaware, announced earlier this week it will open a primary and specialty care office along Route 1 in Rehoboth Beach by spring of 2022.

The move marks the first time ChristianaCare will open such an office in Sussex County, as the health care system has 15 primary and family care offices in New Castle County, including two offices in Middletown, and one in Kent County (Smyrna).

“We are on a mission to deliver the right care, at the right place for everyone … That includes increasing access to primary and specialty care services that will help people to achieve their very best health and manage chronic conditions,” ChristianaCare Medical Group President Lisa Maxwell said in a prepared statement. “We’re incredibly excited to provide families in Lewes, Rehoboth and surrounding areas, and especially those 65 and older, with high-quality, convenient care close to where they live, work and play.”

The 10,000-square-foot medical office will be at 18742 Coastal Highway, the former Pier One store that closed in May 2020. The location is on the main artery that runs through Delaware’s beaches, a prime draw for many older Delawareans or second homeowners.

Plans are still under development, so ChristianaCare has no estimate on how much it will invest in renovating the former retail store or how many positions the office will create, according to ChristianaCare spokesman Bill Schmitt.

ChristianaCare’s announcement comes at a time when Delaware’s hospital systems are turning their eyes to Sussex County, where a population explosion is raising the need for hospitals and doctors. State officials project the population of Sussex County is expected to increase by 12% by 2025, and the 65 and older population is expected to grow by 16% over the same period.

Beebe Healthcare and Bayhealth are both at the forefront of this arms race for expanding health care. Beebe recently opened a campus in Millville and is constructing a surgical center in Lewes, while Bayhealth opened a new hospital off Route 1 in Milford and is planning to open an emergency room in Harbeson.

Meanwhile, ChristianaCare, headquartered near Newark, has invested in expanding its footprint in the last decade, specifically concentrating on key growth areas. The healthcare system opened its Middletown emergency department in 2013, followed by a neighboring primary care office. In early 2020, it also acquired Union Hospital in neighboring Elkton, Md.

ChristianaCare declined to disclose to the Delaware Business Times how many patients from Sussex County it serves, or how that number may have changed over the past three years.

“Health care is a dynamic business, and in the efforts to serve patients as these health care systems see fit, there is a constant change in the deployment and redeployment of those services to meet those needs,” Wayne Smith, president and CEO of the Delaware Healthcare Association, an industry association that represents the state’s health care systems, told the Delaware Business Times.

With the Rehoboth Beach office, ChristianaCare not only will be able to treat patients with in-person visits but will be able to offer virtual appointments through its network, as well as home visits, according to officials. The primary care practice plans to include extended hours for early morning and evening appointments and some Saturday appointments.

But as the population continues to age in Sussex County, all three hospital systems may soon contend with the drop in primary care doctors. According to a 2018 University of Delaware study of primary care commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Services, there were 815 physicians in Delaware and 15% of that total were in Sussex County. Given Delaware’s population at the time, there are an estimated 2,014 patients served by a full-time equivalent primary care physician in Sussex County.

The same survey showed that 22% were not likely to continue their practice by 2023. The nation may face a shortage between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

ChristianaCare, Bayhealth and Beebe are attempting to head this shortage off, as ChristianaCare already offers a residency program. Bayhealth launched an inaugural class of family medicine and internal medicine residencies, and plans to start a surgical residency soon. Beebe is planning to launch a similar program in the next two years.

When asked about the potential of three hospitals competing for physicians in Sussex County, Smith said “competition is a basis of fact in a capitalist society. We have always taken it as a positive for the customer.”

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