Before Andrea Schmidt and her husband moved to Hilton Head Island from Ohio three years ago, they didn’t think to investigate the local health care offerings.
Looking back, she said they should have.
“We are on a constant tailspin of trying to find a doctor, trying to keep a doctor and having no confidence in these doctors,” said Schmidt who recently underwent treatment for breast cancer. “There’s also so many specialties we need down here that don’t exist.”
A lack of Hilton Head specialty doctors is a common concern of readers of The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette. The papers asked readers in late 2018 to share their health care experiences via social media.
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Hilton Head leaders, too, have heard similar complaints from town residents. Newly elected Mayor John McCann said he plans to form a committee this year to tackle the town’s health care issues.
“Residents here believe there are not enough services for them, not enough options for them,” he said. “Residents feel we should have a greater assortment of physicians. The answer is two-fold. One is the short-term need, which is to provide some of those services. And the long-term need is that we need to think big and think into the next generation instead of just thinking about today.”
Bill Harkins, mayor pro tem, said the committee, likely made up of local doctors and representatives from Hilton Head Hospital, will inventory the island’s health service offerings and the number of health professionals to determine if the demand is being met.
Next, the committee will explore changes to better serve residents.
Harkins said the committee will also look ahead at predictions for the health care industry, especially technological advances. That might include discussions on bringing a 5G network to Hilton Head, which would allow for remote health care and other medical breakthroughs to be available in town.
Practicing medicine on Hilton Head
Harkins, who spent 35 years as a senior health care CEO, said physicians working solo on the island is “not sustainable,” and group practice would be a better idea. Currently, he said, most physicians practice alone.
Some of those are concierge doctors, who charge a membership fee to their patients each year.
Harkins said that while the concierge model is an “excellent” form of medicine for those who can afford it, more concierge doctors won’t solve the issues facing the island.
“Not everyone is well-to-do on Hilton Head,” Harkins said. “If more and more physicians see value in migrating to concierge, that’s going to leave more and more people without access to physicians.”
The added cost is why the Schmidts did not opt for a concierge doctor, despite struggling to find a doctor who would accept new patients.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re having much luck anywhere we go,” Schmidt said. “Then it seems like the only other option is a concierge service. And we’re paying $400 a month for Medicare, insurance and prescriptions and we just can’t afford to dish out $1,000 for each of us every year. And are we even going to get any better care?”
Many who responded to the newspapers’ call shared similar concerns.
“Inaccessible appointments to area physicians pushes people to concierge offices,” said Janice Gierer, a Hilton Head resident.
“I am diabetic, and the best internal doctors charge a concierge fee, which insurance does not cover,” said Robert Schatz. “I was quoted up to $2,000 a year to use these doctors. I cannot believe this is even legal.”
A scarcity of medical specialists accepting new patients
Another common concern readers shared: the lack of specialists on the island, and in Beaufort County overall.
Pat Cooke, who lives in Beaufort, has been driving an hour and 40 minutes to Charleston to see a rheumatologist for osteoarthritis treatment.
Cooke doesn’t have many other local options. There are no practicing rheumatologists on Hilton Head Island, according to Ginger Allen, director of development for Volunteers in Medicine.
In mid-January, a rheumatologist’s office in Bluffton, Articularis Healthcare said the next available appointment for a new patient was the second week of March.
“All we see is ... ‘Retire to Beaufort’,” Cooke wrote in a recent letter to the editor. “Then you can drive to Charleston for your health care.”
Schmidt said she and her husband spent their first year trying to find a doctor on Hilton Head, but none were accepting new patients. Schmidt specifically wanted a female doctor, and finally opted for one in Bluffton.
Shortly after that, a Hilton Head doctor had a cancellation and made Andrea an appointment.
That doctor was great, but she moved out-of-state, Schmidt said.
Now she’s left searching again.
Having recently undergone radiation treatment, she said she can’t go long without being under someone’s care.
“My husband and I don’t understand why so many people down here have moved here to retire,” she said. “So many people come from areas with excellent hospitals, and how they can come down here and have to deal with this medical system. (It’s) alarming.”
From not calling back with test results to their overall demeanor, Schmidt said many of the doctors she has visited have not impressed her.
The couple prefer to have medical care nearby on the island — not in Bluffton or Beaufort. So looking beyond Hilton Head is not their first choice.
However, if another dire medical issue arises, Schmidt said she wouldn’t hesitate to make the trip back to Ohio to visit the Cleveland Clinic — where she said she knows she would get better care.
Harkins said he knows many island residents who look elsewhere for their care, some driving two and a half hours to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
“We have a significant opportunity for improvement,” he said. “Should we do better? And if we should, how might we do better?”