The closest hospital to Alabama’s beaches is in Foley, which “can seem like an eternity” during an emergency along congested Alabama State Route 59.
The trip is especially treacherous on summer weekends, when tens of thousands of motorists converge upon or leave the Gulf Coast. The state’s transportation director recently called it a "dangerous situation," prompting him to elevate a new Intracoastal Waterway bridge atop the list of road construction priorities in Alabama.
“We’ve been worried about our residents and access to health care,” Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said Tuesday. “It’s a good ride up to the hospital.”
Efforts are under way to address the concerns. On Tuesday, the city of Orange Beach unveiled a new partnership with USA Health that will team physicians inside ambulances with paramedics at the Orange Beach Fire Department.
The partnership comes as the city of Gulf Shores prepares to approach the State Health Planning & Development Agency with a request to build a free-standing medical-emergency center north of the Intracoastal Waterway off of Route 59.
The moves, according to emergency care practitioners, could also help to reverse Alabama’s poor scores from the most recent industry-wide analysis on the state of emergency care.
Earning failing marks in categories like “Access to Emergency Care,” Alabama’s woeful performance was attributed to a “severe workforce shortage in the area of emergency medicine.”
“We are attempting to do something about that situation,” said Dr. Edward Panacek, chairman of emergency medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine.
The partnership between USA Health and Orange Beach was made possible due to an approximately $1.3 million expenditure the city made to purchase two ambulances and staff them by adding nine full-time city paramedics.
Orange Beach Fire Chief Justin Pearce said it’s the first time the city has owned and operated its own ambulance service. The decision to do so was made in November and was based on concerns over logistics of arriving to an emergency call during high-traffic periods. The city service began on May 28.
MedStar, which previously provided ambulances for Orange Beach, will continue to serve as a backup.
“MedStar did a great job,” said Kennon. “But if they were north of the (Foley Beach Express) bridge, it just takes too long. We only have two lanes off this island on the Orange Beach side, so it is an issue.”
The USA Health and Orange Beach partnership will place resident physicians inside the ambulances. The physicians, on a rotational basis, will respond to 911 calls within the city and work alongside the city’s paramedics.
“If you have an emergency in Orange Beach, there is a likelihood you’ll have a doctor at your front door,” said Pearce. “That is amazing.”
The partnership begins on July 1, although the physician rotations with Orange Beach won’t start right away. Instead, they’ll get going in the partnership’s second year as the new emergency medicine residency program at USA Health develops.
Panacek said the residency program will open with a class of interns beginning within the next 2-1/2 weeks. The program is the second in Alabama – the University of Alabama at Birmingham is the other.
The USA Health program will graduate, on average, six emergency medical physicians. Panacek said that UAB’s program graduates about 10 each year.
At present, Alabama ranks No. 49 among states in the number of board-certified emergency physicians per capita.
The new partnership comes at no cost for Orange Beach. USA Health has a similar arrangement in place with Mobile Fire-Rescue to place resident physicians inside of ambulances with city paramedics.
“We want to give our resident physicians a broad spectrum of experiences,” said Panacek. “We have increasingly come to understand that minutes matter with acute heart attack and stroke patients and other critical illnesses. You can either get patients to the hospital or you can get the resources, such as the physicians, to the patients. This arrangement does a little of each.”
In Gulf Shores, city officials are preparing a certificate of need with the state to build a new medical-emergency center on city-owned property at the former Sacred Heart Health System facility. The vacated building is tucked away off of Route 59, behind the Microtel Inn and north of Jack Edwards National Airport.
The city paid nearly $3 million last year to purchase the Sacred Heart facility which was built about a decade ago but faltered after the state did not OK plans to allow for a higher level of care there.
Blake Phelps, economic development coordinator with Gulf Shores, said the city wants the state to consider its new plans. Gulf Shores has executed a letter of intent with South Baldwin Regional Medical Center and its parent company, Community Health Systems, to apply with the State Health Planning & Development Agency in constructing a free-standing emergency department.
That new building would be situated immediately south of the empty Sacred Heart complex. The Sacred Heart facility would then house complimentary health care services that could include outpatient surgery, specialty physician clinics and primary care, among other things, Phelps said.
Phelps described the goal as “creating a multi-specialty campus that will offer enhanced care for all of coastal Alabama.”
Kennon, who said Orange Beach is supportive of the project, said the new medical facility will be “centrally located” for people living on Ono Island east of Orange Beach and on the Fort Morgan peninsula west of Gulf Shores.
“This is moving forward and I’m excited about it,” said Kennon. “Every minute counts especially with a stroke, head injury or heart attack. If we can have someone on the table in 15 minutes rather than 30 to 40 minutes, it’s a life saver. It’s also quality of life for our city.”