A Life Project

University of Central Florida Academic Health Sciences Campus.

UCF and HCA Healthcare Build a Legacy in Lake Nona

On a 36-acre construction site near Orlando International Airport, UCF Lake Nona Medical Center is beginning to take shape. The 64-bed teaching hospital is set to open late next year. Already approved to expand to 500 beds over time, it will be part of the growing University of Central Florida Academic Health Sciences Campus.

But the site holds so much more than construction steel.

It holds the potential to put Central Florida on the map as a national and even worldwide destination for academic medical research and the future of patient care. It holds a planned pipeline of new medical professionals to help fill a statewide gap in talent in the coming years. It holds a place as a cornerstone, along with cutting-edge facilities including the VA Medical Center and Nemours Children’s Hospital, in the emerging 7,000-acre Lake Nona Medical City developed by the Tavistock Group.

And within all of that, it holds the promise of becoming the legacy of two powerhouse leaders who are staking their lifelong careers on making the teaching hospital not only a reality but a success. They are Dr. Deborah German, UCF’s vice president for health affairs and the founding dean of the UCF College of Medicine, and Wendy Brandon, a 24-year veteran of the nationwide HCA Healthcare organization who started her new role as CEO of the future teaching hospital
in January.

For German, the hospital is key to her vision of creating an academic medical center that will join the ranks of the most prestigious in the nation, including Harvard Medical School in Boston, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was this vision that spurred her to move to Orlando in 2006 to accept the dean position for a medical school that had not yet been built.

“What I saw when I looked at this was the opportunity to build this century’s premier medical school — one that would anchor a medical city that would one day be a global destination for research, patient care and education,” German said. “To me it was like a dream come true. Who could turn down such an offer to come and build something that would have such impact not only on the Central Florida community but on the state and ultimately on the nation?”

For Brandon, the project represents a chance to build something unique to the 186-hospital HCA Healthcare system. As the CEO of HCA Healthcare’s 221-bed Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford, she was helping with design plans for the Lake Nona facility when she realized she couldn’t hand it off to someone else. She had invested her heart.

“I was at a point in life, both personally and professionally, when I started thinking about, ‘What’s my legacy? Once I’ve retired and have been out of health care for a long time, what will I look back on and feel I’ve contributed to the community?’ I felt like the chance to come build the UCF Lake Nona Medical Center and lead the team into the future was an opportunity I could not pass up. It’s going to be defining and change the landscape of health care in our community. That was the catalyst for me.”

Both leaders speak about the difference the teaching hospital will make for students, for patients, for UCF, for Central Florida, and potentially for the nation and the future of medicine. That makes the personal investment well worth their time and dedication.

“I was looking for a life project,” German said. “A project that would allow me to look back when I’m 90 like my dad and say, ‘Good job. You did something worthwhile.’ And when I saw the 7,000 acres and the airport, I thought, ‘This is it. This is the right place where you can paint a beautiful picture, and you can paint with a bunch of really talented people.’ The university was filled with talented people, the developer Tavistock was filled with high ideals and big dreams, and it just felt like this community was the right place — fertile ground for a big dream.”

A Shared Passion

By coincidence, both women have deep connections to Nashville, Tennessee. Brandon was raised near there and earned her MBA from Belmont University in Nashville after getting a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Tennessee at Martin. HCA Healthcare was founded in Nashville and its headquarters are there.

German, who earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry at Boston University and her M.D. degree from Harvard Medical School, worked in Nashville for 17 years, first with Vanderbilt University and then with St. Thomas Hospital. Her roles bridged health care, academia and business while she continued to practice medicine as an internist and a rheumatologist.

But it was their passion for the health care industry that brought them together. The two met when Brandon reached out to German about having HCA Healthcare doctors serve as adjunct faculty for the new UCF College of Medicine, which admitted its first graduating class in the fall of 2009.

Brandon spoke about their connection in a March 2016 article in i4 Business: “Both Dr. German and I believe in the significance of investing in relationships. She was willing to come to my hospital and get to know me, and that meant so much. I’ve learned a great deal from her. When you make that type of investment, you never know where it will lead.”

Today they spend a lot of time working together — and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Getting Ready

A lot of the initial work has been collaborating with architects and engineers. Each detail in the design and construction of the teaching hospital must be handled with an eye toward future expansion. For instance, areas that house support services on the first floor, where patients check in, can be reconfigured with growth. The hospital will start with three floors and the ability to add four more, and there is space carved out for another seven-story tower next door.

Brandon has turned her attention these days to hiring the right people to open and operate the hospital. She expects to have the staff in place by mid-2020, but an exact opening date is difficult to predict.

“Once the building is complete and ready for us to move in, there is a lot that will happen before we’re ready to open the doors of the hospital,” Brandon said. “Our team will move in, we’ll orient, we will do simulations of various patient care scenarios, test our systems. We’ll work very closely with some of our colleagues across HCA Healthcare who will come in and help us with a lot of that activity. And then there are many different surveying and accrediting bodies that will come in and make sure we’re ready.”

Once the hospital opens, it’s hard to know how quickly it will fill with patients. That patient volume is key to how quickly UCF and HCA Healthcare residency programs will begin at the facility.

Today, 445 physicians are training in UCF-HCA Healthcare residencies at HCA Healthcare hospitals in Kissimmee, Ocala, Gainesville and soon Pensacola. Residents eventually will work at the Lake Nona facility.

“Opening a hospital is a highly choreographed event,” German said. “We have to make sure all of the professionals are in place. It will from the very beginning be a teaching hospital, which means there will be medical students in the hospital as learners. The residency programs will come later. We want to make sure we have a high enough volume so that we can build a residency program that will give our residents substantial experiences.”

Academic Benefits

Adding the teaching hospital is a critical piece for UCF, German said.

“The presence of a closely affiliated or owned hospital allows us to become an academic health science center,” she said. “Those words probably don’t mean anything to most people. But when you develop an academic health science center, you attract a different kind of student and a different kind of faculty. People in the field recognize that academic health science centers are where development of the future takes place.”

The students will benefit by working with a hospital that is not only using today’s technology, cures and medicine but is also developing future technology, cures and medicine.

“For students, that is the most exciting thing of all because it’s the difference between learning a trade and creating the future,” German said. “Because medicine is always advancing, you’re always a little bit behind unless you are creating the future.”

Working with the students will also benefit the hospital’s medical professionals, Brandon said. “When someone is working alongside you and you’re explaining what you’re doing and why, it causes you to think differently,” she said. “You’re not just doing it automatically. You’re having to give it real thought. That causes you to question whether that’s the best way. When you’re teaching as you’re doing, it keeps you sharp.”

What’s Next

Teaching Hospital Rendering
Teaching Hospital Rendering

Through the hospital, HCA Healthcare and UCF will help fill the growing gap of health care workers not only locally but nationwide.

“Central Floridians already have a great sense of pride for the University of Central Florida and the incredible work they’re doing,” Brandon said. “This is a crown jewel for the community to have a teaching hospital. Because when you train people in your community, they tend to stay there. You start building your life when you’re in medical school and move on to residency and fellowship training. The deeper our educational experience is in Orlando, the more physicians long-term who will be attracted to stay in our area, or even come to our area.”

Research and development taking place at the hospital will also attract other health care ventures to the Orlando area, Brandon said. As the ecosystem grows at the UCF Academic Health Sciences Campus, German will continue pushing for additional initiatives.

“We have at least 100 things to do after the teaching hospital,” German said. “We’re working on a number of centers and institutes, we need other colleges out here. Anything that is medical or health-related is on the agenda. Remember, it’s a life project, so we want to do everything.”

“I have to say, there are days when I can’t believe we’ve done as much as we have, and there are other days when I think, ‘Why haven’t we finished?’ We’re having success. And there’s more to come. I don’t want anyone to think we’re done.”

About the author

Diane Sears

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the editor-in-chief of i4 Business. She is the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC and co-founder of the Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect current and future women business owners with growth opportunities. She also serves in leadership roles with the Women Presidents’ Organization, Women’s Business Development Council of Florida/Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, and Athena PowerLink.

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