We are about to find out if Orlando can pull off what no other market in the United States has accomplished: three top-tier destination children's hospitals.
Nemours Children's Hospital is just 18 months from opening its doors, the final stretch of a more than six-year journey marked by bitter turf battles over whether it is needed in this region.
Orlando Health, which operates Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, and Florida Hospital, which just opened its Walt Disney Pavilion for children, staunchly fought Nemours, but it eventually won state approval to build.
Now the real contest among the three is just getting started.
Two things are already clear. The competition has the potential to continue to raise the bar for the care and services available for sick kids in this community. That is a very good thing.
And, the growing rivalry is going to be fierce. Also a good thing.
All three hospitals downplay the competition to win business from patients and referrals from physicians and say they want to focus instead on collaboration. More on that in a minute.
But if there's any question as to just how tough the competition will be, consider recent events.
In February, Nemours opened up a preview center near its Lake Nona construction site in southeast Orlando. After showing a video that highlights Nemours' work on some of its tiniest patients and rave reviews from their parents, the floor-to-ceiling video screen rolls up to reveal two decked-out hospital rooms with all the bells and whistles the $380 million facility plans to provide.
Meanwhile, Arnold Palmer Medical Center, which includes the children's hospital and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, received about $4 million in philanthropy and a large dose of publicity from the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month. Golf pro Annika Sorenstam, on a national broadcast, even touted the top-notch care her young son is receiving from the hospital.
And last week Florida Hospital dedicated its new Walt Disney Children's Pavilion, a $65 million facility for which Disney contributed $10 million and lent its star power — Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse — to the event.
Disney and Florida Hospital left no detail untouched, down to the scents that help immerse each floor into a theme built on one of Disney's films such as "The Little Mermaid."
And the one-upmanship doesn't end with the resort-style features.
Florida Hospital and Nemours both won approval from the state to begin open-heart surgery and other cardiac services for kids. Orlando Health already performs those procedures at Arnold Palmer and is ranked 30th nationwide for pediatric-heart programs by U.S. News & World Report.
Florida Hospital expects to begin those programs within a year. Nemours must wait until 2014, according to its agreement with the state.
Nemours, as the startup, certainly has challenges ahead of it. It must expand its referral network among pediatricians in a market already dominated by the other two hospital systems. And since Nemours announced the project in 2005, local growth slowed along with the housing and job markets.
But that is also one reason why collaboration is going to be important for all three hospitals.
There are early signs that partnerships could begin brewing despite bruised egos and feelings that linger from the fight over Nemours' entry into the market.
John Bozard, president of Arnold Palmer Medical Center, said one possibility could be that the hospitals form a fourth nonprofit entity that could focus on research.
And Marla Silliman, chief administrative officer for Florida Hospital for Children, invited Nemours CEO Roger Oxendale and top executives from Bozard's team to take part as key sponsors of a March of Dimes walk that she is leading later this month and they agreed.
Perhaps that walk will represent one small step toward new collaboration for the community.
Bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.
Competition fierce for hospitals
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