Once an hour or more away, general and specialized medical care is increasingly moving into the Highland Lakes along with doctors, nurses, and other professional caregivers, who, in turn, are important economic drivers in the area.
Since Baylor Scott & White Hospital opened in the second quarter of 2012 in Marble Falls, Burnet County has added 27 medical firms, 776 employees, and nearly $11.3 million in wages just in the health care sector.
Baylor Scott & White is Marble Falls’ third-largest employer with 573 workers.
The city of Burnet’s health care industry similarly bolsters its economy. Like the Marble Falls hospital, Ascension Seton Highland Lakes is the third-largest employer in Burnet with 160 associates (257 total in the county). While a few commute from as far away as Lampasas, Austin, and Fredericksburg, a vast majority of the employees live in Burnet or Llano counties.
Dr. Erica Hughes, in her pristine white doctor’s coat, and Dr. Curtis Copeland, in his cowboy boots, dress shirt, and stethoscope, are exemplary of the medical professionals who are part of the growing patient care community in Burnet County.
“We have the only cardiopulmonary rehab in the Hill Country region, and so we serve a huge patient population,” said Hughes, a pulmonologist at Seton Highland Lakes Specialty Clinic in Burnet, who noted the broad economic diversity of her patients.
A family medical physician at Baylor Scott & White, Copeland agreed that patients in these small communities cover all income and age levels.
“For example, in one exam room, I could be seeing a retired CEO who’s wealthier than I’ll ever be,” he said. “I can be in the next room seeing a working family. In the third exam room, I could be taking care of a patient who would not have a home were it not for a local church congregation that gave him a trailer to live out of. That’s all one right after the other, so full spectrum.”
Copeland came to Marble Falls to work at Baylor Scott & White only after carefully researching the area. He was already familiar with the Highland Lakes. His wife’s family is from Lampasas, and he grew up in Leander. Still, he interviewed locals, talked to graduates from his alma mater, and cold-called local physicians.
“This was the opportunity,” he said. “It was the right size of town. It was close to family. It was a beautiful area of Texas. The most beautiful in all of Texas, in my opinion.”
An added bonus: Working at Baylor Scott & White let him practice the kind of medicine he wanted. Copeland calls it full-spectrum family medicine — from the cradle to the grave.
“From first breath to last,” he added.
Hughes settled in the area after a three-year fellowship at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She was recruited by Ascension Seton in Burnet.
“It’s kind of funny,” she said. “My husband and I were coming up in the summer sometimes. We have a family friend, a brother-in-law, who has a lakehouse on Lake Buchanan, and we’d come up every summer and we’d think, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to retire here one day?’ And then, I got this opportunity. We thought, ‘Why wait for retirement? Why not come up and live and work and raise our kids here in this wonderful area?'”
Eleven years later, she serves 20-28 patients a day and performs one or two bronchoscopies a week.
She sees patients from a large geographic region, including San Saba and Mason counties and even the Big Bend area.
“I find that interesting,” Hughes said. “We get people who don’t want to go out further west and people who don’t want to go out to Austin or San Antonio. I think this area is poised perfectly for these patients, so it’s not just the Burnet-Marble Falls-Central Texas area. It really does go beyond that.”
While her patients are mostly older, she has seen a shift in age demographics.
“I’ve been seeing more younger asthmatic patients,” she said, “but, certainly, the bulk of patients we see now are Medicare age.”
Since 2012, the area has experienced an influx of new medical providers, including clinics for Austin Heart, Westlake Dermatology, Vitalogy Skincare, Hill Country Memorial, and Texas Oncology. The service areas for Ascension Seton and Baylor Scott & White overlap.
“A lot of people are moving out here,” Hughes said. “Commuters that move out to the Hill Country that work in Austin. I’m very lucky to live and work out here.”
Copeland agreed and said he is here for the long haul.
“Hopefully, our next move is when we pass away and our kids move our stuff out,” Copeland said. “Now, life changes, but that’s the current plan.”
Meanwhile, the medical industry in Burnet County continues to grow with the new Baylor Scott & White clinic in Burnet and the Marble Falls medical office building off Max Starke Dam Road, both under construction.