TAMPA — At this year's "Research Day," the University of South Florida's equivalent of an upper-level science fair, Dr. Stephen Klasko threaded his way through hundreds of students, professors and judges.
A professor came forward to offer encouragement to Klasko, the dynamic vice president of USF Health and dean of its medical school. Another smothered him in a hug, and a USF photographer snapped candids, a paparazzi in academia.
A few days earlier, Klasko, 54, had dropped a bombshell on the staid Tampa medical establishment: a proposal that USF be allowed to bypass the usual channels to build a hospital on its campus. It unleashed a firestorm of protest from Florida's hospital industry and mutterings of disbelief from hospital executives in Tampa Bay.
The controversy energized Klasko, who needs more energy like the Energizer Bunny needs an espresso. The legislation to push Klasko's agenda was shelved in Tallahassee last month, but the man on a crusade to put USF medical school on the map is not deterred.
Building a better medical school wouldn't just be good for USF, Klasko says, but would improve care for everyone in the Tampa Bay area. It would attract more research dollars, better faculty doctors, and a broader range of cutting-edge treatments. And because medical students tend to settle where they're trained, better doctors being trained here would translate to better doctors working here.
"What aspirations do we have?" said Klasko, who is a practicing obstetrician with a Wharton MBA. "Do we want to be a place that's okay? Or do we want to be the kind of place that people talk about nationally? I'm saying that we can do better."
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Since Klasko arrived at USF in 2004, he hasn't hesitated to disrupt traditions and tackle controversy. He has been vocal about his ambitions to raise the medical school's profile and run it with an attitude more entrepreneurial than ivory tower.
"He's one of the most creative people I've met in terms of medical school administration," said Dr. Bill Dalton, chief executive of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. "He's extremely intelligent. He thinks out of the box. ... I think what he's trying to do at USF is exactly what should be done."
Among Klasko's changes: bringing the colleges of medicine, public health and nursing together under the umbrella of USF Health; restructuring key areas such as women's health and heart health so that faculty are in closer contact; building two new treatment centers; and recruiting several nationally known faculty members from elite medical schools.
Until now, both Klasko's boldest move and biggest headache have centered on residency programs, which train doctors in specialized fields. He took on the area's most powerful private orthopedic practice when he revived a residency in that field at Tampa General. But he couldn't find a way to save USF's troubled anesthesiology program and let it die.
No matter what Klasko has done so far, his tenure will likely be judged on his most recent proposal. What he's trying to do goes beyond building a hospital. Klasko aims to fundamentally alter the balance of power between the 37-year-old medical school and the local hospitals with which it works. He views this as the only way to push USF to greater prominence.
Along the way, Klasko riled some hospital leaders. Most notably, in his campaign for the USF hospital, Klasko criticized local hospitals with a broad brush, pointing to national rankings that rate some of them poorly and saying that Tampa Bay residents often leave the area in search of better health care.
This didn't go over well.
"The quality of patient care in Tampa Bay is superior," said Ron Hytoff, Tampa General's president and CEO. "I just don't understand that."
Hytoff went on to note that Tampa General has received top marks from other national ratings groups.
"That's an offensive kind of remark," said Norm Stein, president and CEO of University Community Health Inc., whose main hospital is next to USF. "I think there's a lot of good quality care that goes on here."
It doesn't surprise Dr. Ronald J. Wapner to hear that Klasko's zeal has created discord. Klasko recruited Wapner to Drexel University's College of Medicine when Klasko was dean there. Wapner left shortly after Klasko did, to become chief of maternal fetal medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center.
"Steve has always taken the honorable and correct path that's in the best interest of his institution and his community," Wapner said. "And he's always, always ruffled feathers."
Wapner said he has heard good things about the changes that Klasko has brought about at USF, improving its status and bringing in superstars. "You can do that on charisma for a while," Wapner said of Klasko's recruiting efforts. "But you have to have substance, you have to own a hospital, or they'll get frustrated and leave."
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The uneasy relationship between USF and Tampa General lies at the heart of Klasko's dilemma. If USF and Tampa General were closer partners, Klasko might not have felt the need to push a new hospital. And the medical school's biggest challenges, such as anesthesiology and orthopedics, are intertwined with Tampa General as well.
Despite such issues, Hytoff said he and Klasko have a cordial relationship. He praised Klasko's changes to the medical school.
"I think he's had a positive impact," Hytoff said. "He's a fun guy. He's very bright." He said Klasko has set an interesting example by being on call for obstetrics emergencies. "He does that periodically and delivers babies," Hytoff said. "I hear he's very good at it."
Years ago, the hospital's relationship with USF was closer, one USF faculty member said.
It used to be required that all medical department heads at Tampa General be USF faculty, said Dr. Rafael Miguel, former chair of USF's anesthesiology program and a former member of the state Board of Medicine.
Miguel backs Klasko's push for a new hospital even though he feels that in dealing with anesthesiology, "the path the university took was flawed at every turn." He praised Klasko's work in other arenas, such as reviving orthopedics and building new treatment centers.
"If USF is going to move ... to the next step, USF should have its own hospital and it should be on the USF campus," Miguel said. "Invariably, that upsets some people."
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Klasko says USF College of Medicine needs its own facility because powerful local doctors' groups have a lock on existing hospitals. And they don't want to make room for USF physicians or residents who might impinge on their time or their revenues.
"A lot of this is leverage,'' Klasko said. "Unless I have leverage, a private physician has no reason to work with us. Right now we're beggars."
For instance, Dr. Peter J. Fabri, associate director for graduate medical education at USF College of Medicine, said he has tried to establish a residency in cardiac surgery since he came to Tampa 22 years ago.
USF still doesn't have one.
With USF's anesthesiology program, Klasko tried working with private doctors at Tampa General, a strategy that failed partly because national regulators said those doctors couldn't teach well enough.
He's had more success in reviving USF's orthopedics program by working with several hospitals. That program shows promise, but Klasko and his new department chairman said restrictions by hospitals limit their ability to recruit faculty.
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When Klasko isn't working, he runs marathons. For a long time, he tried to get better with each one. Nine marathons in a row, four minutes faster each time.
His knees have finally rebelled, and three surgeries later, Klasko's goal is just to finish one marathon a year.
But he still approaches his job with the same philosophy: relentless improvement. He wants to get more state money for USF. He wants to improve relations between USF and its partners. Klasko wants to do more.
"You want to be viewed as a health science center on the move," he said. "The way to be viewed that way is to look at what you can be rather than what you are."
Lisa Greene can be reached at (813) 226-3322 or email@example.com. Kris Hundley can be reached at (727) 892-2996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.