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  1. Health

The future of Tampa Bay hospital care looks a lot like Apple and Amazon

Tampa Bay residents have more say than ever in how they go to the doctor.

Patients can chat with a physician from their phones, or from a computer screen at a grocery or drug store kiosk. Urgent care clinics and freestanding emergency rooms are proliferating across the region. And many hospitals are undergoing multi-million dollar upgrades, with amenities like private rooms, to accommodate a rising tide of patients.

The future will bring even more convenience, according to CEOs of the Tampa Bay area's largest health care organizations.

In recent interviews, they described a health care landscape that is changing rapidly to keep up with population growth, new technology, changing patient preferences and government rules designed to keep people out of the hospital. More than one likened their new, evolving approach to the way companies like Apple and Amazon have changed the retailing world.

Hospitals and their offshoots will be more "consumer centric," they said.

"Retail ready" is how Tampa General Hospital CEO John Couris described it, using Apple as the model.

"Their stores are cool, we like going online through their products," he said. "There might be phones out there that can do more stuff than the iPhone, but we pay Apple because their network is reliable. It's a real relationship, and that's something we're trying to create in health care now."

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The key will be adjusting as customer expectations change, said Tommy Inzina, CEO of BayCare, which operates 15 hospitals in Tampa Bay and surrounding areas.

An example: "Years ago, it was very common for a patient to have a roommate," he said. "With patients paying more money out of their own pockets for health care now, they don't want a roommate anymore."

What makes Tampa Bay and Florida unique in some ways is that the population is still growing. That's the main driver of new construction and renovations, which nearly all of the major hospital systems in Tampa Bay are investing in right now, said Jay Wolfson, a professor with USF Health.

A particular focus will be on "the Medicare, commercially insured and cash-paying parts of that market," he said. "For patients, it should mean more access and choice. And while the physical brick-and-mortar acquisitions and expansions under brand names continues, each of the corporate health care powerhouses in our community are very busy developing virtual care systems and will expand dramatically in the years ahead to include home-based care management and marketing so that 'visits' to the doctor or hospital will be less necessary."

Like retailers, they're learning that convenience is key.

• • •

Orlando-based Florida Hospital has been expanding aggressively into the Tampa Bay market ever since it merged with University Community Health in 2011.

In some ways, their plans are similar to Publix Supermarkets, which is putting stores in communities that are just starting to grow. Earlier this year, Florida Hospital purchased the Dade City hospital from Bayfront Health, strengthening its hold in Pasco County, where it already operates hospitals in Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel.

The company, owned by faith-based Adventist Health System, recently purchased a hospital in Ocala and built a brand new one in rural Wauchula last year. It also owns a large swath of land in Polk County, where it plans to build a freestanding emergency room and potentially a new hospital as the population fills in between Orlando and Tampa Bay.

"We see that population growth continuing in Pasco County and north along I-75. As that area fills in, that's where we believe we need to focus on," said Mike Shultz, president and CEO of Florida Hospital's west Florida division, which includes 10 hospitals. Seven are in Tampa Bay.

Beyond acquiring new properties, Florida Hospital is renovating its existing ones. The most notable project is at the company's flagship property, Florida Hospital Tampa, which is undergoing a $300 million renovation that includes a new a surgical tower with more beds and operating rooms. Many rooms will be private and offer amenities like pull-out beds for visiting family members.

BayCare, too, is spending hundreds of millions on facility upgrades at its existing hospitals. Just down the road from Florida Hospital Tampa, BayCare's St. Joseph's Hospital is building a $126 million, six-story tower that will add 30 private rooms on each level.

In Valrico, BayCare is building a $53 million "HealthHub" designed to house all routine health care needs under one roof, from primary care to pediatricians to rehabilitation and fitness. The complex will have room for "health-minded" retailers and nutrition education, but more importantly will streamline patient visits as a one-stop shop for all their annual check ups.

"Think of this as a tech deck at the Apple Store," Inzina said. "We're making these capital improvements and investing in new strategies because these are the services people want and need. The goal is convenience and affordability."

RELATED: 'Seek medical attention,' her Apple Watch said. Good thing she did.

At Hospital Corporation of America, or HCA, plans are under way for new ERs in Palm Harbor, Lutz and Brandon, but also to build a new patient tower in Sun City Center.

Bayfront Health, which operates seven hospitals from Brooksville to Venice, recently acquired the Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center in Crystal River after selling its Dade City Hospital. The network of hospitals, owned by the national chain Community Health Systems, also has broken ground on a freestanding ER in Pinellas Park.

"We planned for many, many years to accommodate the Baby Boomer generation, but in just a few years, millennials are going to be making all the health care decisions," said John McLain, CEO of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, the flagship hospital in the local chain. "Millennials are far more technology-centric and you'll see more and more in the health care industry working to communicate more effectively through phones and apps as we try to reach them."

• • •

Similar to what happened during the early digital conversion days in the retail industry, health care has been slow to react to new technology. But that's changing, said Couris at Tampa General.

The hospital partnered with GE Healthcare to open a new care coordination center, which aims to improve quality, efficiency and patient safety through data analytics. The 9,000-square-foot center, set to open next year, will use data to help improve the patient experience and better track wait and discharge times.

"With the system of care that we're creating, we want to be the Apple of health care in this region," Couris said.

Tampa General also plans to open more urgent care clinics in counties outside of Hillsborough and pilot two new projects — an outpatient center for transplant patients in Fort Myers and a clinic designed for family care. But it is largely bound to its home campus on Davis Islands.

"We need to be quicker to respond and react," Couris said. "The future of health care is not building more big boxes."

Tampa General isn't the only one investing in tech and data. Florida Hospital is joining with Apple to allow patients to access their medical records from their iPhones. The hospital also has its own design center and incubator for testing digital ideas before rolling them out.

Across the market, the next big venture is adding smart devices to the home to help consumers track their health more easily and frequently. "What's more consumer centric than receiving your health care at home?" asked Shultz, the Florida Hospital CEO.

Earlier this year, BayCare began opening a series of kiosks where patients can talk privately with doctors on a screen inside Publix grocery stores.

"We've invested quite a bit in the telemedicine space," said BayCare's Inzina. "Patients want to be able to do everything online, from scheduling to refilling medication. This is affecting our strategy a lot as we look into the future."

• • •

The Affordable Care Act helped usher in a shift in thinking about the cost of health care, which is driving many of the changes consumers see these days. Hospitals are penalized more often now by insurance companies and the government when patients have more frequent stays. That's why the local CEOs agree that the future of health care isn't in "the sickness business."

It's in wellness.

"In the next 10 years, instead of you paying the hospital for an emergency room visit, the hospital will get a lump sum for the year to make sure you are healthy," Shultz said.

"We are, then, responsible for your health. So there will be more incentive for preventative care. … Right now, we want all the sick people to come to our ERs. But soon, we'll want to see you before disease sets in and try to keep you healthy."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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