Should the Georgia Department of Community Health decide to grant one of three requests from Augusta hospitals to build a hospital in Columbia County, the site chosen is likely to offer both strengths and drawbacks.
Doctors Hospital of Augusta, Georgia Regents Medical Center and University Hospital have all submitted requests for a Certificate of Need to build a 100-bed hospital in Columbia County, the state’s most populous county without one. The state is likely to join the requests and rule on them together.
The most developed site is easily the University Hospital Evans campus, which already has medical office buildings and is surrounded by a corridor of health care practices, an attribute University officials have touted from the beginning.
“University’s Evans campus is right in the heart of an existing, vibrant, relatively new medical complex,” said Ed Burr, the senior vice president for legal affairs.
“There is a very large existing medical community that’s right next to the University campus; makes it very convenient for them to access their patients and for their patients to access the hospital since they are right next to each other.”
The site will connect directly with the extension of River Watch Parkway once it is completed and sits at the conjunction of other major arteries in the county, Burr said.
“All of the major roads in Columbia County lead to that campus,” he said.
But that is also one of its drawbacks in that it sits on heavily traveled North Belair Road, said Shawn Vincent, Georgia Regents’ vice president for partnerships for the health system.
“If you go down Belair Road or Washington Road, there is a tremendous amount of congestion,” he said. “You’re very close to schools. You think about speeding ambulances going past schools and through school zones. We wanted to try to avoid that and not create additional traffic headaches for the people within the county.”
The GRMC site in Grovetown, just off Interstate 20, is aimed at positioning it in the fastest-growing section of the county, Vincent said.
“That’s an area where there’s a tremendous amount of growth currently occurring and certainly anticipated growth that is expected in the future based on the expansion of both the Cyber Command, the Cyber Center of Excellence as well as the (National Security Administration),” all at nearby Fort Gordon, he said.
The site also sits cheek-to-jowl with the University Hospital campus at Grovetown that just opened. Though one of the Center for Primary Care offices sits close by, there is little else nearby.
Burr said most of those established practices on North Belair probably would not “pull up roots and move” if the hospital goes to Grovetown. It would be “basically making people make the decision that they are either going to have to drive on a fairly congested piece of road to get to the hospital from their offices or relocate their offices” and take a loss, he said.
While it is not included in the application, GRMC’s plan is to add a medical office building, either on its own or in partnership with developers, physician practices or even another hospital, Vincent said.
GRMC’s plan is for the hospital to be mostly staffed by community physicians, but Burr questioned whether that is realistic.
“They have no track record of recruiting private practice physicians into the community,” he said. “If you go outside of pediatrics, there are not a lot of existing physicians in this community that practice over there” at GRMC.
Vincent said the university works well with community physicians, particularly in pediatrics and in communities outside Augusta. Over time, having the hospital in Grovetown could make it the next health hotspot for the county, he said.
“We certainly would anticipate that would become a magnet for growth around the health and wellness areas,” Vincent said.
That is also the hope of Doctors Hospital for its site on North Belair Road on the other side of Washington Road from the University campus, CEO Doug Welch said.
Right now, “it is nothing but trees,” he said. “It would need to be developed.”
But it is also the location that was most attractive in the area where Doctors Hospital wanted to be, Welch said.
“Because it is central to Evans and the population base that is around it,” he said. “It’s the last big piece of property in that area, too. There’s no other 20-plus acre site around there. You have to get out pretty far before you find big sites again.”
There are relatively few physician offices in the immediate area, but that would be why Doctors Hospital would also add a medical office building, Welch said.
“You have to have the (offices) to attract new physicians to the area,” he said. “You build a medical facility and physicians do come close to it. I think it would definitely attract people to that side of Belair Road if we’re chosen to move forward.”
It might take time, but Welch said he can look back at the history of Doctors Hospital for how that would happen.
“I love hearing the stories from our medical staff when Doctors was built 40 years ago that Wheeler Road was a dirt road out here,” Welch said, perhaps jokingly. “Eventually, look what happened now. Forty years later there are tons of medical office complexes around here. The hospital didn’t hurt the commercial growth in the area. If we’re chosen and that site is where we get the chance to build, the development would come around it.”