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A history of Manatee Memorial Hospital, from concept to community asset

An aerial view of Manatee Memorial Hospital in the late 1960s.
An aerial view of Manatee Memorial Hospital in the late 1960s. Provided photo

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of a series of articles on the history of Manatee Memorial Hospital. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 can be read on Bradenton.com.

Several years before the expansion’s completion, Manatee Memorial Hospital trustees voted unanimously in April 1967 to contribute $100,000 to the City of Bradenton’s plan to dredge the Manatee River bottom, extend the shoreline bordering the hospital and thus create more useable dry land with the fill.

Manatee Memorial stood to gain 8.5 acres of the new land, popularly known as the Sandpile. The state donated that portion of the river bottom lands sold to the city. The hospital intended to increase the number of parking spaces. Today our parking garage and the Veterans Memorial sit on this land.

The primary purpose of the dredging was the creation of dry land between the De Soto and Green bridges. Before the completion of the project in May 1969, the city announced a plan to create a tourist attraction on those 55 acres of the new riverfront land.

In 1971, Bradenton floated the idea of “public-private” complex of a convention center, parks, shops, motels, hotels, apartments and restaurants. It was not popular at the time. Described as Bradenton’s “most valuable piece of land,” the property sat empty except for weeds for years until residential buildings, one hotel and one commercial high-rise came to dominate the landscape.

To put Manatee Memorial’s expansion in broader perspective, its growth coincided with the county’s two-year economic development surge up to August 1968, the Tampa Tribune reported that month. County officials cited the completion of the $22 million utilities system in 1967 as Manatee County’s top accomplishment, with the groundbreaking for Port Manatee in 1968 second.

In the previous four years, the labor market grew by 4,000 jobs with roughly half in manufacturing. Telephone installations more than tripled from 1955, and electrical connections more than doubled with the increase in population, which almost tripled from 1950 to 1970 – from 35,000 to 97,000, census figures show.

DiLallo, Kevin.jpg
Kevin DiLallo is the CEO of Manatee Healthcare System.

In 1968, hospital trustees approved a partnership with the University of South Florida on medical training programs for students upon completion of USF’s medical school in 1971. In announcing the agreement, hospital Administrator Bentley Lang explicitly stated this was not a medical residency program.

That same year, MMH launched an “Excellence in Service” program to emphasize the very best patient care and service. Employee raises were linked to patient surveys. Over the first six months of the program, the majority of the survey responses applauded the hospital.

A committee of 50 employees from every department and shift analyzed the patient answers and provided administrators with suggestions for improvements. The committee found the program created a stronger rapport among personnel. Other hospitals marveled at the success of “Excellence in Service” and asked for details on the structure and implementation.

The dedication of the $4.5 million addition occurred on Dec. 14, 1969, with an estimated 250 people listening to speeches during a special ceremony. The festivities actually began a day earlier, a Saturday. The Bradenton Herald celebrated the debut of the expansion by publishing a 32-page “Open House and Dedication Souvenir Edition” of which I would love to have a copy of if anyone in town has one.

On Dec. 12. Manatee Memorial boasted state-of-the-art updates in the Emergency Room, X-ray and EKG departments, pharmacy, laboratory, operating suites, intensive care unit, and additional facilities. Hospital employment stood at 856 back then, today MMH employs over 1400 full time equivalents.

Manatee Memorial Hospital had a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning on the Emergency Care Center, which officials say will open next summer.

Manatee Memorial’s next major project ran right on the heels of the $4.5 million addition, but political challenges awaited. Further discussion of another expansion of Manatee Memorial or the construction of another general hospital took place among community leaders.

With record population growth and a bustling economy and with major housing projects — Ironwood, Perico Isles and Village Green — in the early stages of development, future demand for medical care would overwhelm the community unless a plan was put in place.

In April of 1970, the hospital proposed staffing the emergency room around-the-clock with four physicians serving eight-hour shifts. Trustees approved the idea the next month via a contract with a new nonprofit formed by the Manatee County Medical Society, Manatee Medical Inc.

The organization of physicians was charged with selecting specialists in emergency room care. Other specialists would remain on call. The sliding scale contract paid ER doctors $11.50 hourly should the number of patients be less than 500 in a month. Should the monthly patient population range from 1,600 to 1,770, the hourly rate out of the payment pool plunged to $1.

That hospital pay did not include what a patient would usually pay a private physician. By August, commissioners approved the appointment of four ER docs. Today MMH has 3 physicians that staff the Emergency room every day, 24hours a day 365 days a year and a pediatrician that staffs the Emergency room for 12 hours every day.

With the 1970 population thought to be around 80,000 and a prediction that figure would double by 1980, Lang told Manatee County commissioners he expected the need for 800 beds by 1980. (Actual U.S. Census figures put the population at 97,000 in 1970 and 148,000 in 1980.)

Armed with charts detailing patient population figures dating to 1948, the hospital administrator also expressed a sense of urgency for developing a growth plan. The medical community was also feeling the pinch. Doctors were overloaded with patients, some loathe taking on more and Lang noted the hospital could use another 25 physicians.

Kevin DiLallo, CEO of Manatee Healthcare System, has been a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives for more than 25 years and has a passion for providing health care to his community. Email him at Kevin.DiLallo@uhsinc.com.

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