ST. PETERSBURG — In joining forces with the internationally known Johns Hopkins Health System five years ago, All Children's Hospital hoped to catapult itself into the top tier of pediatric hospitals.
In many ways, it succeeded.
All Children's has a new medical residency program that recently attracted 1,400 applicants for 12 slots. It draws experienced physicians from top hospitals such as Boston Children's. And it has broken ground on an $85 million research and education facility.
"History has shown the relationship to be very beneficial because it strengthened the clinical capabilities at All Children's," hospital consultant Peter Young said. "There's no doubt about that."
The next step, hospital leaders say, is to have the name reflect that. Beginning Tuesday, the 259-bed pediatric facility will officially be known as Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.
The partnership between All Children's, a 90-year-old institution in St. Petersburg, and Johns Hopkins, a Baltimore-based medical powerhouse, started out at an uncertain time for the hospital industry. Hospitals across the country were merging, in large part to overcome dwindling government reimbursements.
The deal between All Children's and Johns Hopkins was unique. Although no money changed hands, Johns Hopkins got ownership of All Children's and its new hospital facility. Local trustees remained in control of the hospital's board.
For Hopkins, the deal marked the health system's first expansion outside of Maryland. For All Children's, it was an opportunity to team up with an out-of-state academic institution that could bring resources, research funding and a highly respected brand to St. Petersburg. (The hospital had an existing relationship with the University of South Florida medical school, which it has maintained.)
The first major change: shifting from an administrator-led hospital to a physician-led hospital — a hallmark of Johns Hopkins institutions, according to All Children's president Dr. Jonathan Ellen.
"We are now run by people who are taking care of the kids, and that makes a big difference," Ellen said.
Other changes soon followed.
In 2012, the hospital named Dr. Neil Goldenberg its first director of research. The following year, it opened a high-tech biorepository with room to store 330,000 research specimens.
The new three-year residency program to train recent medical school graduates has been especially important to hospital leaders. Not only has it brought trainees from top-ranked out-of-state medical schools to St. Petersburg, but it will also likely keep them in Florida. Studies show most doctors stay in the state where they complete their training.
In addition, the Hopkins affiliation has helped All Children's recruit top physicians from around the country. Recent big-name hires include Dr. David Kays, a noted pediatric surgeon from the University of Florida. Kays was named director of the congenital diaphragmatic hernia program in January.
"I'm getting doctors from Pittsburgh. I'm getting doctors from Baltimore. I'm getting doctors from Boston Children's," Ellen said. "They're coming from all over the country because they know it is a great children's hospital."
Over the past five years, the hospital's business has been "morphing slowly," Ellen said. His team reduced the average number of patients on any given day from 200 in 2010 to 170 by keeping those with less serious needs for fewer days when appropriate.
"We're giving better care to the local community because they are ending up in the right place and we are also starting to attract more complicated cases because we have these surgeons and these physicians who can take care of it," Ellen said.
About three-quarters of its cases are from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota counties, hospital records show. Most others are from the surrounding counties.
Despite the changes, the hospital's net operating revenue has increased, state records show. And its operating margin has risen from minus-1.3 percent in 2010 to 2.5 percent in 2013, the most recent figures available.
Mark Stroud, the current board chairman, said he and other trustees had some early reservations about the partnership with Johns Hopkins. Some worried All Children's would lose its identity. Others were concerned local trustees would lose control.
Neither came to pass, Stroud said.
"It's really come together better than anybody on our board could have expected," he said. "It has taken us into the stratosphere as far as quality care, research and potential for teaching."
The partnership has also been an asset to Johns Hopkins, said Dr. Paul Rothman, who oversees the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Health System.
"To do really important clinical research in children, you need a certain volume of children," Rothman said. "Now that we have two children's hospitals (including Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore), together, they are doing joint research programs."
The surrounding "Innovation District" — the neighborhood that incorporates the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Bayfront Health — has benefitted, too, said Joni James, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and a former editor at the Tampa Bay Times.
"Once you have a world-class medical institution in your midst every single day, it changes the conversation about the future," she said. "It changes the ambition."
Ron Peterson, the president of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, said he envisions big things for the future of the partnership, including additional opportunities for medical residents to train at the St. Petersburg campus, and more collaboration among researchers.
"They've shown commitment to excellence in clinical care that's informed by the science, as well as commitment to training and educating the next generation of doctors and leaders," he said. "What is going on there is very exciting to us."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.