Pre-Covid, UF Health had big plans for Northeast Florida

UF Health Jacksonville - Pre-Covid, UF Health had big plans for Northeast FloridaJune 17, 2020 (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Business Journal)

Hot on the heels of finishing a $30 million ambulatory hospital in Nassau County’s Wildlight community, UF Health recently began a $15 million Wildlight rehab facility in partnership with the YMCA.

Those two projects headlined a series of UF Health investments throughout Northeast Florida, including a $35 million infrastructure refresh of its downtown Jacksonville campus, a primary clinic in Crystal Springs, a clinic in Nocatee and an imaging center in Baymeadows, among others.

They were also supposed to be a sign of things to come for UF Health, which was considering a number of major projects as it started 2020. However, the spread of Covid-19, which has prompted the suspension of elective operations and caused the volume of patients at clinics to plummet, has put the future of those plans in question.

UF Health CEO Leon Haley discussed some of the projects the health care provider had been considering before the pandemic began in an April 9 interview with the Business Journal.


UF Health’s downtown campus is fast approaching its 50th anniversary. In addition to the wear and tear that puts on infrastructure, the hospital’s design is suited to the health care needs of decades past, Haley said.

“Our rooms are small because they were designed in the late 60’s,” said Haley. “We’d love to have rooms that are more comfortable for patients and their families. We’d love to have greater space for nurses and our physicians… and because we are an academic and educational center, we need to incorporate the needs of students and research in our design excellence.”

While some facilities can be repurposed, the most cost effective solution for others may be a total replacement. Haley said UF Health had not ruled out replacing its hospital tower.

Its campus, located north of downtown, also has a rare opportunity to gain a large foothold in the urban core, courtesy of the more than 11 acres the First Baptist Church has put on the market. The property could be utilized for clinics to serve downtown’s growing population, dorm or research space for students or as innovation space for a life sciences cluster, a strategy espoused by industry expert Mike Brown and favored by Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer.

Haley confirmed that UF Health was exploring the possibility of adding research buildings and educational space to its Jacksonville campus and had even been in talks with the city about partnering on innovation space.

“We’ve had some conversations both internally here and in partnership with our colleagues in Gainesville and a few private companies that I can’t mention,” said Haley. “We’ve actually talked to the city, quite frankly, about whether or not there’d be some joint incubator space, innovation space. So we’ve definitely had some conversations.”

As for the First Baptist property specifically, Haley said, “We haven’t ruled it out.”

Free-standing facilities

UF Health, as with many health care providers, has embraced a strategy of moving primary care clinics, emergency departments and space for outpatient surgeries away from hospital campuses and closer to population centers.

It has not yet opened any free-standing emergency departments, as both Ascension and Baptist Health have done in Duval, but that option was being, Haley said.

“We haven’t made a final decision,” he said.

Its clinic in Nocatee had been a big hit, Haley said, and though only a year old, UF Health was considering expanding it.

These facilities offer non-essential services, however, and have been hit especially hard by social distancing requirements, Haley noted. For example, an imaging center that UF Health opened in March was ordered closed after only a couple weeks in business.

After Covid-19

As of April 9, it was not clear how viable the totality of UF Health’s capital investments would be after the Covid-19 pandemic ends.

“All of this [UF Health’s capital planning] will be shaped by how, economically, we come out at the end of all this,” Haley said.

The process of responding to the virus has also changed how health care systems think about their facility needs, Haley added.

He predicts an increased need for telehealth capabilities within hospitals in order to limit the number of physical interactions between infectious patients and their physicians, as well as increased interoperability between hospitals to allow a UF Health facility to accommodate patients from an overwhelmed Baptist or Ascension hospital, and vice versa.

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