TAMPA — The University of South Florida is creating a new health system with Lakeland Regional Medical Center as its first member hospital, USF president Judy Genshaft announced Wednesday.
The partnership would add 200 new medical residencies to the school's existing 712, making USF's the largest such doctor training program in the state, officials said. And it would allow the medical school to realize long-held ambitions of placing the USF name on a major hospital.
The USF-Lakeland partnership — pending approval by their respective boards in the coming week — marks the latest alliance between an independent hospital and a larger organization at a time of sweeping consolidation in health care. The trend reflects the growing pressure on doctors, hospitals and insurers to contain rising costs and improve quality of care.
The university expects to launch the USF Health System, which would include its existing 450-physician multispecialty practice, in late March 2013. And USF is seeking more partners like Lakeland Regional, an 851-bed, nonprofit hospital that touts the largest emergency department in the state.
"What we're creating, in essence, is a Tampa Bay-based university health system that we believe others will join," said Dr. Stephen Klasko, dean of the university's medical school. "We believe that this is really the first of many announcements like this."
While USF has referred to the deal as an "operational merger," it is not buying the Lakeland hospital, which will continue to be run by its own board of directors. Once the partnership is approved, the university and medical center will begin a financial analysis concerning details of the merger.
Tampa General Hospital, another independent institution, will remain USF's main teaching hospital. Officials from both institutions said they look forward to continuing to work together closely and strengthen their sometimes strained relationship.
"We don't anticipate that this is going to negatively impact Tampa General in any way," said hospital spokesman John Dunn, declining to comment on whether Tampa General will be interested in joining the USF system.
Lakeland Regional could have joined a hospital chain, its leaders said, but they were drawn to USF's academic orientation. And the residencies could help to secure a pipeline of new doctors to the community.
"Polk County really has a shortage of physicians. We see that now in 2012. Our projection is that in 2016, that shortage will worsen," said Elaine Thompson, president and CEO of Lakeland Regional.
"We're really hoping that students that are educated in medical schools in Florida or other places will select us as a site for residence, and after they do their residency, they would stay in our community," she said, describing a pattern that is common among doctors.
And USF's resources can help Lakeland's existing programs, too. For example, Thompson said she has struggled to recruit neurosurgeons. Now the USF department chair can come to meet candidates and expand interest in Lakeland's program.
She also acknowledged the increasing difficulties facing independent hospitals, which lack the clout of larger organizations when negotiating with suppliers and payers.
In recent years, two of Tampa Bay's standalone hospitals — All Children's Hospital and University Community Hospital — similarly shored up their futures by merging with larger organizations. All Children's is now part of Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Florida Hospital/Adventist Health System bought UCH.
Now Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, struggling financially on its own, is openly exploring strategic partnerships. Bayfront declined to say whether it had interest in the new USF health system.
"It's part of a national trend that plays out differently in local markets. It's one that we're going to see continuing pretty much everywhere for the time being," said Glenn Melnick, a professor at the University of Southern California and a health economist at the nonprofit RAND Corp. "The pressures will continue."
For USF, which has never had its own teaching hospital, the Lakeland deal represents a long-desired opportunity. In recent years, Klasko campaigned to bring a small hospital to the USF campus but didn't get far in a challenging economy.
Recently, USF has seen more success in forging partnerships with statewide reach. These include the university's new medical training and simulation center in downtown Tampa, known as CAMLS, and its partnership with the for-profit HCA hospital chain to run a controversial network of five new trauma centers from Jacksonville to Miami.
The creation of a USF Health System — and the affiliation with Lakeland Regional — represents a step toward realizing USF's hospital ambitions, Klasko said.
"We've done about everything that we can do as an ambulatory-only medical school," he said. "The simple fact is that the world is changing. There's consolidation happening around us."
"What we wanted to do," he added, "is to be a leader as opposed to a follower in that kind of health care transformation."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330.