LAND O'LAKES — Before Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel opened last month, a billboard went up in the heart of central Pasco.
"Your New Hospital. 100% Private Rooms. Close to Home. Just Minutes Away on State Road 54."
Only it wasn't an ad for the newest hospital, but a plug for the Medical Center of Trinity, a 236-bed hospital owned by a competitor about 13 miles west, which pulled up stakes in New Port Richey last year and built a new facility closer to the more affluent center of the county.
Less than a mile to the east, drivers can see Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel's billboard featuring a rendering of its shiny new 83-bed hospital that began admitting patients Oct. 1. And about a mile or so south on Dale Mabry Highway, the name appears again on a billboard advertising the Adventist Health System, its corporate parent.
Still another billboard on SR 54 just east of the Suncoast Parkway urges westbound commuters to visit icantbelieveitsahospital.org, a website for St. Joseph's Hospital-North. The 108-bed hospital opened in 2010 and is part of BayCare, the dominant health care network in the Tampa Bay area. The other side of that billboard shows eastbound drivers an ad for Florida Hospital's Pepin Heart Hospital in Tampa.
"We used to have to travel all over the area," said Jeff Novotny, president of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce and father of three daughters. "Our pediatrician was in Temple Terrace. Our dentist was in New Tampa."
Experts say its not surprising that an area growing as rapidly as central Pasco is fast becoming the center of what they call a "medical arms race."
"Over the past decade, the primary hospital expansion and competition strategies have been to make themselves attractive to the well-insured population," said Alwyn Cassil, spokeswoman for the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan group that conducts research on the health care industry. Most of this, she said, has focused on "the latest and greatest technology" and amenities such as flat-screen TVs and video systems that let you order food as if it's hotel room service.
During a recent tour of Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, executives touted features such as a 128-slice CT scanner, the only one in the area. By showing thinner cross sections of tissue, it can pick up more images than scanners with fewer slices. The MRI room allows patients to bring their own soothing music, while pediatric emergency department rooms feature decorative wall motifs that parents can change with the flip of a switch.
"Physicians want to work with the latest tools for diagnosis," said Brian Adams, the hospital's chief executive officer. He described a patient who came in with unexplained pain and doctors were "able to find the microscopic beginnings of endometriosis."
Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel's primary market area is Wesley Chapel, Land O'Lakes, northern Hillsborough and parts of southern Hernando County.
That overlaps with the area Trinity also claims, which includes the billboards for both hospitals.
"Medical Center of Trinity serves patients from the gulf coast across State Road 54 to Land O'Lakes and from Westchase north to Hudson," said Leigh Massengill, Trinity's chief executive officer.
She said the expansion of State Road 54 in recent years has helped heat up hospital competition in Land O'Lakes and Lutz because patients have better access.
"Communicating our new location is important," she said. "We are using billboards on Route 54 as well as in other areas that we serve to let people know how close they are to the services available at our hospital."
Amenities at the Medical Center of Trinity are similar to Florida Hospital, with big-screen TVs, Wi-Fi and high-tech ways to make menu choices. It also touts its robotics technology for minimally invasive surgery.
At St. Joseph's Hospital-North, executives tout the institution's 78-year history of delivering health care to the Tampa Bay area.
"A large portion of patients that come to St. Joseph's Hospital-North are patients who originally were cared for at the main campus" in Tampa, said Paula McGuiness, chief operating officer for the Lutz-based hospital.
The hospital also offers a coronary catheterization lab and a sleep disorders center. It has just added an outpatient cancer center for adults who need treatment such as chemotherapy. Last year, the hospital's ambulatory surgery department received an award for its "high quality patient experience."
"The accommodating and kind care team at St. Joseph's Hospital-North strives to make each guest feel like they are at a five-star hotel, not about to undergo surgery," McGuiness said.
Those amenities are critical elements in a health care system that focuses primarily on the bottom line, says a national expert on health care economics.
"The American people have decided long ago to view health care as a business that hunts for (patients), these biological creatures yielding cash," said Uwe E. Reinhardt, the James Madison Professor of Political Economy and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. "Now, as in any other business, to attract customers with cash one must please them. Hence the medical arms race among hospitals."
Stephanie Hipple was among the pleased.
One of the first patients at Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, she based her choice on convenience and aesthetics.
"It was 15 minutes to get there and 15 minutes to get home," said Hipple, 66, a New Tampa resident who had outpatient surgery on her arm. She said her neighbors had been to an open house and gave it good reviews. "The grounds were very attractive and the interior was very sedate."
Her reasons are typical of most patients, who tend to be insulated from actual costs by insurance companies.
"Growing hospital systems are using the market power accrued through size and reputation to finance more expansions by raising (not lowering) prices," according to a study in the journal Health Affairs called "Hospitals' Geographic Expansion in Quest Of Well-Insured Patients: Will the Outcome Be Better Care, More Cost, Or Both?"
The authors studied various markets across the United States, including Miami and Indianapolis.
"There is an unbelievable amount of building," an Indianapolis insurer representative told the authors. "They are building hospitals right next to each other; it is pretty amazing. They have to pay for them; someone must fill them up."
CEOs say competition will offer patients more choices and therefore elevate the level of care.
Plus, it's smart planning, McGuiness said, since new hospitals must secure state approval and therefore take years to build and open.
"It raises the bar for everyone, with the patient being the ultimate beneficiary," Massengill said.
That may be true in terms of bells and whistles, critics say, but it won't cut costs, and it may have no real effect on quality.
"Consumers and patients are not in a good position to judge clinical quality," Cassil said. "Hospitals don't provide a lot of information about it. You don't see billboards saying, 'We have the lowest infection rates or the lowest mortality rates.' "
And the fancy perks are not free. The result? Higher insurance rates.
"At the end of the day, somebody has to pay for all the gee-whiz technology," she said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.