ST. PETERSBURG — Johns Hopkins needs no introduction, with its century-long legacy among American medicine's elite.
All Children's Hospital is revered locally — but sits in a region better known nationally for white-sand beaches than cutting-edge pediatrics.
Soon, a small group of newly minted doctors could help kick start a new level of renown for All Children's. That's what Hopkins, now merged with All Children's, is betting.
This summer, Hopkins won approval to start at All Children's a new medical residency program, seen as critical to transforming the hospital into an academic powerhouse in the model of the Baltimore institution. And local patients stand to benefit from a new talent pool of physicians, because doctors often stay in the communities where they complete their residencies.
"Everybody knows a new, innovative residency program means you have made a commitment to this change," said Dr. Jonathan Ellen, a Hopkins veteran recently named president of All Children's. "It is the most visible expression of the culture of an institution."
Residency is the finishing school of medical education, providing on-the-job training in teaching hospitals. Residents have their medical degrees but practice under the supervision of experienced doctors expected to teach while they treat their patients.
Hopkins has launched other initiatives aimed at elevating academics at All Children's, including hiring a new director of research. Now the residency program has taken center stage, in part because the education of physicians is so concrete.
It's hard to measure "scientific breakthroughs," Ellen noted, and even research funding may not be an accurate measure of progress, given the scarcity of dollars.
But an impressive class of residents, recruited from top schools, would burnish All Children's reputation. Plus, a successful program could draw support for fellowships to further train these doctors in highly demanded specialities. That, in turn, would attract more research and the latest medical advances.
"Most teaching hospital CEOs would say that the presence of residency training and fellowship training really defines them," said Dr. Joanne Conroy, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges. The presence of young doctors helps veteran doctors to think beyond their own decades-old training.
"Residents debate with you about new findings in the literature," she said. "They challenge you on current practices."
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All Children's long has trained residents for the University of South Florida. That partnership continues, independent of the Hopkins residencies.
But the Hopkins/All Children's program will be different. For instance, officials expect that Hopkins residents will interact more with the All Children's medical staff. Many may pursue highly specialized careers. Plus, the new program is expecting to train more doctors educated at high-powered schools out-of-state.
"We have our work cut out for us," said Dr. Chad Brands, director for medical education at All Children's. "To recruit the best of the best, that's a challenge everywhere,'' he said, and this is especially so at a new program.
While Hopkins already has an established pediatric residency in Baltimore, its leaders are promoting the Florida startup as an opportunity for a novel experience.
Traditionally, residency has been defined by grunt work. Residents at the bottom of the physician food chain work round-the-clock shifts, swamped with mundane tasks like updating charts and writing orders. A pediatric resident starting the three-year program most likely would be too busy obeying orders to develop her own interests.
But All Children's pledges that if a resident is intrigued by a case in gastroenterology, for example, she will be encouraged to explore it.
"We are going to attract a leadership-bound, take-a-calculated-risk group," said Raquel Hernandez, associate director for medical education at All Children's. "Our job is going to be to demonstrate to students that we have a strong connection to the Hopkins faculty and to the Hopkins research.''
And they're also pitching a chance to enjoy a work-life balance in a region with great beaches, sports and, of course, good weather.
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While the first residents won't arrive until July 2014, All Children's already is courting candidates. Last month, it hosted a session targeting first- and second-year medical students, set to graduate in time to be part of All Children's initial classes.
A half dozen students, mostly from the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn., received tips ranging from impressing teachers to building resumes. All Children's physicians took them into clinics to watch treatments they're a long way from doing themselves.
Second-year medical student Rene Tellez, 23, came for the chance to learn about pediatric bone marrow transplantation. He attended similar sessions at big-name centers, including Stanford and the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. But he was blown away by All Children's.
"I fell in love with All Children's during my week there. And it wasn't just the new facility. It was the culture, and the people — and my experience with Dr. (Aleksandra) Petrovic," he said, referring to the specialist who served as his mentor.
"In those other institutions, I felt a little more lost in the system and less a priority, whereas here I felt they are already doing a good job of making educating students a priority, which really does stand out to me," he added.
"Now knowing that Hopkins is involved in the residency program, it does add some credibility, because they have the history and they have the name and they have the brand," Tellez said.
Petrovic was thrilled to show him around. In recent years, she said, the USF residents haven't been involved in her highly specialized niche, which wasn't a mandatory rotation.
"You want to move the field. You want to teach the younger generation," said Petrovic, adding that her patients benefit, too.
"A new set of eyes may lead you to a path of thinking about a problem from a slightly different viewpoint."
The number of residents in the first class will depend on the caliber of the candidates, said Brands, the program director. He expects between four and 12 doctors will be his very "first ambassadors."
"Small in number, yes," he acknowledged. "But in terms of potential future scope, they are really key to the outgrowth of our academic transformation.''
Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.