Ascension Sacred Heart to Create New Family Medicine Residency Program Program will attract more primary care physicians to Walton County

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Ascension Sacred Heart

Ascension Sacred Heart has announced plans to create a family medicine residency program based in Walton County, in collaboration with the University of Florida College of Medicine and with support from the Florida Department of Health.

“With the growth taking place along the Emerald Coast, there is a significant shortage of primary care physicians. The projections are that the shortage will worsen in the years ahead,” said Dr. Peter Jennings, chief medical officer at Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola and an associate professor of pediatrics in the UF College of Medicine. “The residency program will bring new physicians to train here, but we also expect that a large number of those who graduate from the family medicine training will choose to remain and practice long-term on the Emerald Coast. The program will serve the medical needs of our community and our hospital.”

A residency program provides in-depth training for new physicians who have recently graduated from medical school with a Doctor of Medicine (MD.) or a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree. The residency program based in Walton County will provide medical school graduates with three years of training in family medicine at Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast as well as experience at a primary care clinic and physician offices in the area.

Ascension Sacred Heart and UF Health plan to begin the residency program with its first class of six physicians starting in July 2023, with the first class graduating in 2026. By the third year, the program will have a total of 18 resident physicians (six per class). The first step will take place in January with an application to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which sets the professional educational standards essential in preparing physicians to deliver safe, high-quality medical care.

The first three years of program funding will be supported by Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast, Ascension Medical Group and the Department of Health in Walton County, along with anticipated support from the state for primary care training programs. The Department of Health will provide space and support staff for a new family medicine practice, where medical residents will provide patient care under the supervision of attending physicians. The practice will be located in the Coastal Branch of the Walton County Health Department, 361 Greenway Trail, Santa Rosa Beach.

Physicians at the practice will see patients who have established care already with a medical resident, patients who have no physician in the community, and patients who are referred from the hospital emergency room to be seen in the practice for follow-up care.

Hospital-based training will take place at Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast. “The hospital has a long track record of providing excellent patient care,” said Henry Stovall, regional president of Ascension Sacred Heart’s hospitals in Miramar Beach, Panama City and Port St. Joe. “The quality of its medical staff and the hospital’s commitment to patient safety will serve to provide exceptional education and training to the new physicians.”

Florida is struggling to produce enough doctors to serve its growing and aging population. A new report by IHS Markit, a leading information and business analytics company, shows that the state could have physicians for only 76% of its population by 2035, leaving the state unable to provide for nearly a quarter of its residents. In addition, as the state continues to grow — and its population continues to age — the state will need more medical care.

The Safety Net Alliance and the Florida Hospital Association are asking state lawmakers to consider doubling the amount of money the state spends on medical residencies. This year, $38 million was set aside for clinical training of aspiring physicians in the state.

“If you don’t expand your health care workforce and your health care infrastructure in a sensible way, it actually can act as a break on growth because people don’t necessarily want to move to a place or relocate to a place that doesn’t have what they view as a strong health care infrastructure,” said Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.

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