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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 8, 2016 2 years ago

Doctor driven

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Polk County's growth is about more than warehouse and distribution. It's also a big opportunity for a nimbly run medical clinic.

For the first time since opening its doors in 1941, Lakeland-based Watson Clinic had 1 million visitors last year.

The health care practice's top executive, CEO Dr. Louis Saco, says that number will likely grow quickly in the next few years, given the Polk County population surge. Areas in need of more medical offices include south Polk, south Lakeland and Bartow.

“I can assure you, we will branch into areas where there is a need,” Saco says. “We followed the projections and the population grew even larger, especially along U.S. 17, Highway 60, U.S. 98 and Polk Parkway. We want to make it one large community with seamless growth.”

A lack of primary care physicians has recently become a statewide and national issue, but in some parts of Florida the shortage is more acute. Greater Bartow Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jeff Clark, for one, says the city could definitely benefit from more medical facilities. “We have some big developments coming in, so when you bring more people into the area, the need goes up for more doctors,” he says. “More physicians would be great for us.”

And Claudia Tritton, vice president of business development for the Lakeland Economic Development Council, says medicine is one of Lakeland's targeted industries. “Watson Clinic has always been a leader for us,” she says. “When we see growth at Watson Clinic, we see growth in other areas.”

Tritton adds that there are several medical service companies around Watson's Lakeland headquarters. “Other companies in Polk County help to serve the needs of Watson Clinic,” she says.

Construction has already begun on Watson Clinic's next project: phase two of its Lakeland Highlands location, a 38,000-square-foot building that sits on a hill on the highest point in Lakeland. It should be completed within a year, and will house orthopedic doctors, ophthalmologists, pediatricians, podiatrists, primary care doctors and an MRI center. “It's the kind of thing we want for our patients,” Saco says. “We want to make it a one-stop shop.”

Saco says analyzing the next spot to grow within Polk is a rather simple process. Watson Clinic retrieves its patients' ZIP codes to see where they come from, creating a map to follow for future health care need. “It's the simple economics of supply and demand,” says Saco, who has done medical work for the Detroit Tigers baseball team, which holds spring training in Lakeland. “If it's needed, you know it's the right thing to do.”

The first clinic in the United States accredited by the American Association of Medical Clinics, Watson now has 16 locations in the areas of south and north Lakeland, Winter Haven, Bartow, Ruskin, Zephyrhills and Plant City. It offers primary care physicians and specialists in areas including oncology, dermatology, women's health, urgent care and pediatrics.

The clinic, which began with just two surgeons, two internists and a urologist, now has 300 health care providers and 1,600 employees. It also turns 75 years old this year.

“We are seeing third generations of patients,” says Saco. “That's what it's all about. We are very proud of that. As needs change and technology advances, we want to be a part of it.”

By Elizabeth Morrisey | Contributing Writer

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