TAMPA — The University of South Florida dreams of seeing its name on a hospital, boosting the prestige of its medical school. But having failed to make headway for years, leaders have a new strategy to make lemonade out of a sour situation.
The university is pushing to rebrand itself as a statewide medical school — or even a national or international one — forging unlikely partnerships as it embarks on wide-ranging and ambitious new ventures:
• Build a $30 million training and simulation center in downtown Tampa to help doctors from around the world master the latest, high-tech procedures.
• Send students 1,094 miles away to Allentown, Pa., to train as medical leaders.
• Run a network of five new trauma centers at HCA hospitals from Miami to Jacksonville.
Dr. Stephen Klasko, dean of the USF College of Medicine, has long chafed at the absence of a hospital to help stabilize funding and bolster USF's reputation. Now, though, he touts the lack of an anchor as an advantage: USF is free to take bold moves to attract high-profile faculty and elevate care in the region.
"Tampa Bay benefits by having a great medical school in Tampa Bay," said Klasko, explaining an unorthodox strategy that isn't just focused on tried-and-true benchmarks like increasing research funding. "It's not to be nationally prominent in the traditional academic sense. It's to have four or five areas where people from around the world say, 'Let's go to Tampa Bay.' "
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Doing something different may be a necessity for the 40-year-old medical college. In the past decade, Florida has created four new medical schools, all of which are competing for the same resources as USF. Since 2005, state funding for the USF school has dropped by 26 percent, Klasko said.
Three years ago, USF riled Tampa's medical establishment with a pitch to build a hospital on its campus. In making his case, Klasko criticized local hospitals with a broad brush, saying Tampa Bay residents often leave in search of better health care.
The push exposed tensions between USF and its primary teaching hospital, Tampa General. USF later tried a softer tone with a scaled-back plan for a hospital centered on diabetes and lifespan diseases. That also stalled.
"We could have dug our head in the sand and had a lot of excuses for why we haven't grown," Klasko said. "Or we could basically have a totally different model and grow wildly, which is what we believe we have been doing and are doing."
Consider the three-story, $30 million building rising in downtown Tampa. The Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation will train doctors on high-tech robotic simulators, testing their ability to perform advanced procedures.
Though it won't open until January, USF already is fielding interested calls from Australia, South Korea, India, Israel, Panama and the United Kingdom, said Dr. John Armstrong, who left the University of Florida to lead the facility. He expects it to draw more than 60,000 medical workers to Tampa each year.
In the fall, USF kicks off another unusual initiative that crosses state lines. The twist: A group of medical students taking specialized classes in leadership will spend their first two years studying in Tampa and their last two training at the Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania.
The program, called SELECT (Scholarly Excellence, Leadership Experiences and Collaborative Training), grew from Klasko's long-standing relationship with the Pennsylvania health system and its residency program.
"Who cares that Allentown, Pa., isn't exactly our palm-tree territory?" USF says in its promotional materials. "For us, distance is just another barrier to break."
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USF's goal of becoming a statewide medical school departs sharply from its founding mission to produce practicing doctors, not researchers and educators.
William McGaghie, a professor of medical education at Northwestern University, notes that national accrediting requirements ensure that both big-name and lesser-known schools produce quality doctors.
Still, he said, it's understandable that USF wants to improve its image.
"Everybody likes to look good," McGaghie said. "It's just like on a personal level. You want to dress up and look good at the prom."
Nor is it guaranteed to boost its position in the influential, if often criticized, U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of the nation's best medical schools.
"It wouldn't be a direct way to impact at least one of the rankings, which would be to become a more research-oriented medical school," said Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News. "It would be hard to go in that direction without their own hospital."
But to look at recent recruits, USF's vision is gaining traction.
Six months after arriving at USF, Dr. Leslie Miller is working on plans to create a heart institute on the Tampa campus. He envisions an 80,000- to 100,000-square-foot building with a similar focus to Moffitt Cancer Center, only for heart disease. Plans don't include a hospital, but research and outpatient care.
The former chief of cardiology at Georgetown University says he came to Tampa because of USF's unbridled enthusiasm for trying new things.
"That's the magnet. It's the snowball," Miller said. "You realize that this is where other people who have that kind of big vision and broad agenda that want to go forward will be encouraged."
But the heart institute remains far from reality. To begin planning, USF is seeking $1.5 million from a cash-strapped Legislature. Even as Miller begins to recruit nationally to double the size of his cardiovascular sciences department to 20 doctors, it's unclear exactly where and how they will operate locally.
USF is talking with University Community Hospital's Pepin Heart Hospital about a new affiliation, Miller says. Any moves will be watched closely by current partner Tampa General, where USF is also eager to branch out and get involved with the hospital's busy heart transplant program.
Tampa General officials say they continue to look for ways to strengthen their ties with USF. Yet as recently as last fall, USF was making waves with TGH and other local hospitals. In November, USF and the HCA hospital chain announced a plans for the university to run five new trauma units across Florida, including at Hudson's Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
But the region's existing trauma programs — Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Tampa General and St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa — all worry that the new units aren't needed and could hurt the quality of care at their programs, which already have been struggling with reduced volume.
USF said HCA made the decision to add the trauma units before it approached the university to run them — so it captured an opportunity that could have gone elsewhere. And it credits the program for luring to the region another star recruit.
Dr. Jim Hurst is coming from Harvard Medical School to direct the USF-HCA trauma network, as well as a Tampa-based data analysis center that researchers plan to mine for best practices in treating everything from seat-belt injuries to gunshot wounds.
Without a statewide trauma network, "we wouldn't have had a chance of getting Jim Hurst," said Klasko, who this week plans to announce another partnership beyond Tampa Bay, but wouldn't provide specifics.
And don't think USF has given up on the dream of seeing its logo on a hospital. In a rapidly changing health care landscape, Klasko believes that day is coming.
"We continue to grow," he said, "so that we're a very good partner when things shake out."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com. Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.