Though it's unclear exactly how deep of a role the University of Maryland Medical System and its doctors will play in the future configuration of the county health care system, their involvement seems to be key to the plans to create "an efficient, effective and financially viable health care delivery system with a regional medical center" — the goal described in the July 2011 memorandum of understanding.

As a part of the agreement, the partners commissioned a study to assess the feasibility of building such a system and to look at the health care needs of the county.

"Transforming Health inPrince George's County, Maryland: A Public Health Impact Study" was conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Health and released July 25. It found several deficiencies when comparingPrince George's Countyto surrounding jurisdictions.

For example, Prince George's Countyresidents experience higher rates of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes and asthma.

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The county also has a lower ratio of primary care physicians, dentists and mental health care providers to residents when compared with nearby counties.

Three primary recommendations emerged from the study:

• "Establish a high-quality, academically affiliated regional medical center with a strong and collaborative prevention-focused ambulatory care network."

• "Develop a county-led process to improve public health, expand access to high-quality primary care and support systems integration."

• "Develop a clear brand that promotes a high-quality health care system, encourages residents to return to the county for care and contributes to a successful thriving system."

County, state and University of Maryland officials spoke optimistically about the health care system's future during the July 25 presentation of the study.

"Medical care and public health are unusual bedfellows," said Dushanka Kleinman, associate dean at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. "They share a common goal; but they approach (health care) in different ways, and they've operated independent of one another."

Prince George's County, she said, has the opportunity to "bring these two sectors together and allow for a blending that has not been seen in the area before."

'Eye opening'

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat, called the study "eye opening."

One of the data points Brown honed in on during his speech is the high number of residents who reported using a hospital outside of the county, many of whom did so because of a physician referral or insurance mandates. He recalled the physician who delivered his daughter 18 years ago refusing to deliver her at any of the three hospitals in the county.

"There is no reason why any family in Prince George's County should have to experience that lack of choice because either their physician or insurance company says you have to go somewhere else," Brown said.

Finding a permanent fix to financial and other challenges the hospital system has faced is one of the reasons County Executive Rushern Baker III, a Democrat, said he ran for his seat.

Health care, along with education and public safety, has been at the top of Baker's priority list. While the county is looking to decrease its involvement in the hospital system, it is planning increases in public health and wellness programs.

"The county's getting out of the business of running a hospital, which we shouldn't have been in the business of in the first place," Baker said.

The county has been looking to do this for years, but it's had trouble finding a buyer for the entire system.

Baker said the University of Maryland was interested in Laurel Regional Hospital and Bowie Health Campus.

However, he said, it became clear the university, or any potential buyer, was going to need reason to believe investing in a new regional medical center was worthwhile. The study outlines a vision showing that a University of Maryland-affiliated medical system, combined with county-led initiatives to improve public health, can be successful.

Not only will it be successful, Baker said, but "it's going to elevate health care in the region."

On what the changes mean for Laurel, Baker said, "This is a great opportunity to make sure the facility up there is top notch."

Laurel Regional Hospital's new president, John Spearman, agreed — noting that Laurel stands to benefit from enhanced services and additional resources.

"With the enhancements, Laurel will be able to handle a higher level of patients than we currently do," he said.

Spearman said he will incorporate recommendations from the public health study as he develops a strategy for Laurel Regional Hospital's future.