Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida started in two trailers in Immokalee, caring for a farming community that lacked access to medical care. That was 1977, back when the organization was known as Collier Health Services. Since then, the county has grown, and the medical network along with it.
The network’s doctors, dentists and psychologists see about 50,000 patients a year in 21 locations throughout the community. And, it is in the midst of one of its biggest projects yet—the Nichols Community Health Center in Golden Gate, a 50,000-square-foot facility that will provide primary care, dentistry, women’s care and psychological services and also house a pharmacy.
President and CEO Mike Ellis discussed with us how the network attempts to meet the needs of an underserved population.
How quickly are you seeing a rise in demand for your services?
“We mirror the area in growth. The population of Collier County may double over the next 20 to 25 years. What you see is wealth moving into the area, and you’ve got people servicing that wealth moving into the area.
“We provide services for all incomes, regardless of their ability to pay. In Naples, it’s largely the service population. People who take care of roofs, yards, who work in hotels and restaurants and often don’t have the luxury of insurance. People come to us on a sliding-
Where are you with the Nichols Community Health Center?
“A little history on that center: Twenty years ago, most of the service population came from the migrant population. Most people drove in from Immokalee. Golden Gate was a middle-class community. Now, most of that population that lived in Immokalee has migrated to Golden Gate. It’s one of the highest concentrations of children and lower-income (residents) in Collier. This happened quietly. It took us by surprise when we started to look at demographics of the county several years ago. We’ve been working on that center for seven years. We have broken ground on it.
“There are no primary care offices in that area, except (the network) does have a pediatric office there.”
Do you hear, as you’re out discussing and fundraising for this center, from people surprised by that quiet growth?
“Yes, as you drive through Golden Gate you see wealth. Sometimes you don’t see the lower income. It’s a huge service population. It’s somewhat of a hidden population.”
What are some things you’re most proud of from your time with the network?
“There are a number of things. I’ve always felt that there was a need for more psychologists in the heath field. I was the first administrator with the Golisano Children’s Hospital, and we only had one on staff. But here, working with the Naples Children & Education Foundation, we were able to collaborate with the David Lawrence Center and National Alliance on Mental Illness and some other organizations, and we decided to integrate psychologists into all of our practices. We have a psychologist embedded in every pediatric practice. If a child comes to a physician’s office and the physician picks up on a behavioral issue, they walk the child down the hall—it’s called a warm handoff—to the psychologist. It all happens there. We liked it so well we’ve started to integrate psychologists into all of our practices. You’re not just treating the body now. You’re treating the mind and the body.”
What’s your biggest concern moving forward?
“The thing that keeps me awake at night is specialty care. Eighteen percent of our funding comes from the federal grants. The rest is Medicaid and some private insurance. On the adult side, most doctors don’t want to take Medicaid. A lot of specialists don’t want to take people with no income. We see a lot of patients with chronic diseases or problems. One of the things that’s challenging is getting our patients to specialty physicians in a timely fashion.”
Who is your typical patient?
“With adults, who we get are people who worked for a long time and who have avoided medical care. They may have hypertension, diabetes or chronic-type problems. When they get to us, they’re sort of set in their lifestyle and it’s hard to get them to change. Just getting them in to us can be problematic. But, we have been around 40 years. The community knows what we offer. We’re out there talking to people and we do some advertising, but a lot of it is word of mouth.”