TAMPA — If you think it's surprising that the University of South Florida plans to build an ambitious health system — starting with a hospital far beyond Tampa — you haven't met Dr. Stephen Klasko.
In eight years as USF medical school dean, Klasko has moved at a dizzying pace, compensating for his institution's lack of a hospital by launching partnerships as far afield as Allentown, Pa.
Along the way, he has crossed lines that others won't, ruffling feathers in the tradition-bound medical world.
Supporters call Klasko the visionary that USF's medical school — which still yearns for national recognition at 41 years old — needs at a time of seismic change in the health care industry. Critics tend to keep their mouths closed when it comes to the obstetrician with an MBA from the Wharton School, wary of publicly crossing him.
Last week's announcement of a new USF health system, with 851-bed Lakeland Regional Medical Center as its first hospital partner, would add 200 medical residencies to the school's existing 700, making USF the largest doctor training program in the state, officials said. It would bring to life Klasko's long-elusive goal of seeing USF's name co-branded with a major hospital.
Klasko, a slight-framed former college DJ whose body and mind are in constant motion, is relentlessly confident that his unorthodox approach will prove nothing short of transformative. And not just for USF, but for health care throughout Florida and beyond.
"I want people to say in 2020, 'Holy moly, I can't believe that in 2012 USF was smart enough to … "
Fill in the blank, Klasko says, citing his accomplishments:
• … build a $38 million training and simulation center, called CAMLS, in downtown Tampa to help doctors from all over master the latest high-tech procedures.
• … partner in a network of five trauma centers at for-profit HCA hospitals from Jacksonville to Miami — even though it could harm Tampa General Hospital, USF's closest partner.
• … deploy USF researchers and doctors to the Villages, a massive retirement community north of Orlando, to help turn it into "America's healthiest hometown."
• … send USF students 1,094 miles away to the Pennsylvania-based Lehigh Valley Health Network, where Klasko trained and still serves on the board of trustees. There, the students will continue training as medical leaders — while spreading the USF name well beyond Florida.
• … incubate innovation — and quite literally put the dean out in front of it — with the newly named Stephen K. Klasko Institute for an Optimistic Future in Healthcare. It's part of a $20 million donation from philanthropists Frank and Carol Morsani to the college of medicine, which now bears their name.
Might all this be a bit much? Nonsense, say Klasko's supporters.
"People have said, 'If you don't keep a lot of balls up in the air, you won't have any to come down.' Steve keeps a lot of balls up in the air," Frank Morsani said last week. "I don't know when he sleeps. He's a workaholic of the best order."
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Four years ago, Klasko dropped a bombshell on Tampa's medical establishment.
He wanted to open a small hospital on the USF campus. To help make his case, he publicly declared that Tampa Bay residents were leaving the area in search of better care.
The recession doomed the hospital funding, and the sales pitch infuriated USF's medical partners. Undeterred, Klasko decided to turn USF's lack of a teaching hospital into an advantage. Unfettered by a traditional hospital, he could be a free agent, opening different kinds of facilities and forging relationships with others.
“The creative partnerships that (Klasko) has structured move the medical school and the university forward in a challenging time," said Tampa attorney Hal Mullis, who serves as vice chairman of the USF board of trustees.
"Our legacy hospital partners," he added, carefully choosing words in reference to Tampa General and Moffitt Cancer Center, "were not in a position to provide those opportunities."
But at a time of sweeping consolidation in health care, when size means clout to negotiate contracts, cut costs and improve quality — USF needed more.
"The world is changing way too much for us to continue to have our same strategy," Klasko said. "Nobody would say that a medical school with very good partners and its own 455-physician practice group — and nothing else — is something that really has a firm gasp on the cataclysmic changes that are going to happen in the future."
The new Lakeland hospital partnership, awaiting final approval this week, breaks the impasse.
Plus, the new health system plan gives other hospitals and smaller medical practices a new option to join a locally based academic medical system, which Klasko has championed from the start as the best way to improve quality and bolster USF's reputation.
"We now control some of our own future," he said.
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As a college student, Klasko manned the midnight to 5 a.m. shift at a Philadelphia radio station. He spun tunes under the name Little Stevie Kent.
He still plays the DJ role upon request, most recently at a society gala raising money for USF researchers. His top 25 playlist is a testimony to his diverse passions:
• Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen — he ran 11 marathons before injuring his knees so badly that, three surgeries later, he has had to resign himself to half-marathons.
• Special Delivery by the 1910 Fruitgum Company — Klasko has delivered more than 2,000 babies in his career and still sees patients once a week.
• Family Reunion by the O'Jays — for the first time in many years, two of Klasko's three children are living near him and his wife, Colleen Wyse.
• Don't Look Back by Boston — he credits his success to not dwelling on the past.
That's not to say that Klasko is without regrets. He now acknowledges underestimating the cultural differences between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, where he spent much of his career. He needed to take time to build alliances to be effective here.
And he admits that health care models in Tampa Bay, which may not be of his choosing, still can be very successful, such as Tampa General's blend of academic and private practice physicians.
These days, Klasko is gaining influence with new friends, such as Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, incoming speaker of the state House.
"I've never met anyone at the university level, particularly at medical schools, that leads with that type of innovation, energy — and just tenacity," Weatherford said.
He worked with Klasko this year to secure $7 million in planning funds for a new heart institute at USF — another innovative partnership, this time involving Florida Hospital in Tampa.
"He's a dog on a bone. When he decides he wants something, he goes after it full throttle."
"Frankly," Weatherford added. "That's what you need."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.