TAMPA — Less than two years after the University of South Florida revived its long-dormant orthopedic surgery program, the department's chairman is returning to California.
A sign of trouble?
No, says departing chairman Robert Pedowitz. More like the opportunity of a lifetime.
Dr. Pedowitz, 49, was recruited to run the orthopedic surgery department at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of California-Los Angeles, whose medical school is ranked in the top 10 nationally. He says the program he is leaving is on the rise.
"There's a tremendous opportunity here to build an excellent department," Pedowitz says. "I'm confident they will continue to grow."
He's not alone. Since the department was re-accredited in 2007, USF administrators say it has grown quickly.
This year, more than 500 medical school students applied for a USF orthopedics residency, a five-year training period for young doctors. The program has four spots a year available, and it got four of its top seven picks.
"We've consistently gotten most of the top people that we've wanted to come here," said Dr. David Leffers, who is replacing Pedowitz.
Leffers, 58, was the first faculty member hired for the reconstituted program, coming from a position as director of sports medicine at the Florida Orthopaedic Institute.
Leffers, Pedowitz and Dr. Doug Letson, the director of the residency program, are credited with playing key roles in reviving a department left for dead for 17 years.
In 1989, 13 of 17 members of USF's orthopedics department quit and formed the private Florida Orthopaedic Institute. That came after the university demoted the department chairman and scrapped plans for an orthopedics institute favored by the faculty.
Five years later, Tampa General gave the institute a contract to run the hospital's orthopedic trauma center. In doing so, it rejected a bid from USF.
That left USF as one of the nation's only major medical schools without a program in orthopedics, the study of bones, joints and muscles. Trauma care is an important part of an orthopedic surgeon's training, so having residents train at Tampa General, the area's only Level I trauma center, was seen as vital.
For years, "it was just assumed that there would never be an orthopedic residency here," said Dr. Stephen Klasko, chief executive officer of USF Health and dean of the College of Medicine.
But the effort to bring back orthopedics gained new life in 2006. That's when USF hired Pedowitz. It's also when the Legislature appropriated $3 million to create the USF Sports Medicine and Athletic Related Trauma (SMART) program.
Indeed, part of the push for a revived orthopedics department came from athletics director Doug Woolard, who wanted the Bulls' team doctors to come from USF.
"I was surprised when I came here that we didn't have an orthopedics department within the school of medicine," he said.
Because Pedowitz was new to the area, he could help re-establish USF's credibility, Klasko said. That led to a better relationship with the Florida Orthopaedic Institute and opened the door for the re-establishment of an accredited residency program.
USF orthopedic residents now train at eight local hospitals, including Tampa General.
Under a 20-year contract, surgeons from the Florida Orthopaedic Institute teach USF's residents during their rotations through Tampa General.
"We've made a commitment to help them, and it's expanding" as the residency program grows, said Dr. Thomas Bernasek, who is on the board of the Florida Orthopaedic Institute and is vice chief of staff at Tampa General.
Two residents, Drs. Paul Edwards and Brian Palumbo, said the setup at Tampa General Hospital works well. Politics, they say, is not a problem.
For that, Palumbo credits Letson, who built the residency program.
"He's mended a lot of fences and worked with a lot of different people," Palumbo said. "That's why I have no doubt that within a few years this will be a top-rated program within the region and at some point will be nationally renowned."
Still, USF administrators say the existing arrangement at Tampa General could make it harder to grow the department. That's because only some USF faculty members practice there. It could be harder to recruit a top orthopedic specialist, USF doctors say, if they couldn't say where that surgeon would practice.
That's one reason Klasko says USF is exploring building its own on-campus teaching hospital.
"We need a hospital where our orthopedic faculty is housed," he said.
Bernasek said the Florida Orthopaedic Institute doesn't "have a dog in that fight," but it does value the care Tampa General provides. So he hopes USF proceeds in a "collaborative and constructive" way that would not hurt Tampa General.
"Hopefully," he said, "it would be done in a thoughtful fashion."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.