ST. PETERSBURG — A newly awarded distinction places Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital among the country’s top institutions for pediatric surgery.
The American College of Surgeons has designated the hospital a level 1 children’s surgery center, an accolade it shares with fewer than 50 other hospitals across the country.
The verification of the hospital’s “optimal resources for children’s surgical care” — from the same century-old body that designates the country’s top trauma centers — comes 3½ years after a Tampa Bay Times investigation, “Heartbroken,” found that the mortality rate at the hospital’s pediatric heart surgery unit tripled between 2015 and 2017 and led the state in 2018.
The 2018 Times investigation reported that the deaths occurred despite several hospital employees warning management. The CEO, three other executives and two surgeons departed and regulators called for sweeping changes. The hospital ended up paying millions to families of the children affected by the surgeries, some of whom suffered severe and debilitating injuries.
Paul Danielson, who became the interim chair of the surgery department after the investigation and was appointed to the job full-time in 2020, said hospital staff emerged from that turmoil, put themselves in a position to improve and, eventually, qualify for level 1 status.
“When we saw what happened with the heart center, all the surgeons here took a pause to say, ‘How can we be better? Is there something that we’re not doing right?’” Danielson said. “There was a big culture change in the whole institution …
“I think everybody was sort of rowing in the same direction with the same objective.”
The necessary changes included adding staff to better track the quality of care and patients’ outcomes, as well as improvements to its performance review process, which he said lined up with what the American College of Surgeons wanted to see.
“You have to show them you’re finding problems and fixing them,” Danielson said.
All Children’s is the third Florida hospital to receive the accolade, following Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood. The St. Petersburg hospital is also the first to be so honored in Tampa Bay.
It applied for the designation in 2019. The process took longer than they had hoped, Danielson said, because the pandemic delayed an on-site inspection and interviews.
Danielson praised the leaders who took over the hospital after the Heart Institute’s problems became public, and he cited the support of families who continued to rely on the hospital despite those revelations.
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“Honestly, I think the community has stuck with us, too,” he said. “Even when the Times broke the story and it was out there, you could certainly think that some parents might not want to come here with their kids … but they kept coming.
“We’re all thankful that the community still had trust in us while we were getting back on track. Now we’ve got people coming from around the country to get operated on.”