DULUTH -- Twenty years ago, Gwinnettians thought little about getting in their cars to drive to Atlanta to see a doctor.
But now, health officials said, the myth of the country doctor is fading.
During the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce's first-ever healthcare summit Wednesday, leaders in the industry told businessmen and women that healthcare is a major economic engine for the county.
"We are bringing a lot of attention to the fact we are a thriving community and a growing community and we are proud of that," Gwinnett Medical Center CEO Philip Wolfe said, as he and Eastside Medical Center CEO Kim Ryan talked about the state-of-the-art technology in the county's three hospitals.
Eastside will soon open a new patient tower, a feat GMC completed at its Lawrenceville campus several years ago. They both expanded cardiac services in recent years.
Yet, half of Gwinnettians still seek medical attention outside the county, they noted. Some services, like transplants and burn care, have been reserved for specialized facilities, but even with the boost in services, health care leaders said the county does not yet have the infrastructure needed to serve all of its citizens.
Wolfe said the implementation of the Affordable Care Act could theoretically drive the demand for healthcare up even more, although he said the industry had to adapt to a more sustainable healthcare model even before the law was enacted.
"We think it's still a growth industry," Wolfe said, pointing out that even before the Great Recession hit in 2009 the healthcare industry was one of the few driving growth. "We are aging quickly, and we know we we will need more medical services as we age. ...
"It's a huge economic engine, and it would hurt the economy greatly if healthcare wasn't growing."
The Chamber's Nick Masino said that message hasn't been lost on the business community, with healthcare as one of the targeted industries in the Partnership Gwinnett economic development effort.
"The potential for development and improvement of healthcare services in our community presents companies with the opportunity for economic growth by supplying the needs of Gwinnett's expanding population," he said. "Partnership Gwinnett's efforts seek to enrich the community's healthcare offerings and support businesses that contribute to this vital industry."
The summit also included a session on how businesses must adapt to comply with the new law.
"The Affordable Care Act has already affected Gwinnett's employers and the most profound changes are due to take effect January 1, 2014," said William S. Custer, director of the Center for Health Services Research for Georgia State University. "With the results of the election no longer in question, Georgia companies will need to understand the impact the law and the implications of upcoming state and federal decisions for them and their employees."