About Amy Umble:
Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Looking back, looking forward

Betty Snider, the editor of our Guide to Living publication, asked me to write something which would look back at the recent changes in the local health care market and forward to any changes that might be coming. Today’s  entry is what I came up with. It appeared in the paper in a slightly different form on Sept. 11.

The emergency room entrance at Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center.

Imagine a local soldier shipped to some distant land, who returns to Fredericksburg after several years. Like Rip Van Winkle, he might not recognize the place.

As far as medical facilities go, when the soldier left, the region had one hospital, maybe a half dozen urgent care centers, and too few primary-care doctors. Now there are three acute-care hospitals, a rehabilitation hospital, a freestanding emergency room, a pair of community health centers, and all manner of after-hour clinics and specialty physicians. Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed is that, depending on your insurance, it’s still tough to find a primary care doctor. By one estimate, the region could use another 50 of them.

Much of this change has taken place in the counties, as developers did what retailers did long ago and followed residents into the suburbs. And like the retail business, the arrival of one new health care operator seemed to attract others. The result is that Stafford County now has a hospital at the courthouse, and Spotsylvania County got its first hospital this summer.

Stafford Hospital

New cardiologists, endocrinologists, obstetricians and surgeons now practice in the area. And if you live off White Oak Road in Stafford, or State Route 3 in King George, or Tidewater Trail in Spotsylvania, and you don’t feel well when you get home from work, you can find  someone to take a look.

So will it continue? If our solider serves a second tour of duty overseas, will he return to even more changes? Possibly.

Some things are already changing, like the construction of a new cancer center ar Mary Washington Hospital and the new radiation service at Spotsylvania Regional. In addition, a new, national health care bill passed this spring. By 2014, it will transform millions of uninsured people into card-carrying, health care consumers. Perhaps 400,000 Virginians will be so affected. One state official recently called this the “coming patient surge” and urged hospitals to be ready.

So when the soldier returns, will he find that an entrepreneur has devised some new way of caring for these patients, perhaps dozens of neighborhood clinics and an army of providers to staff them? Or will he find that doctors won’t accept the new patients’ Medicaid cards, as happens now, and that they have to go to the emergency room for care? I suspect it will be the latter.