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New CEO aims to expand Tampa General Hospital's reach

John D. Couris, the new CEO of Tampa General Hospital, says the health care industry has a lot to learn about being more consumer friendly. "We could learn a lot from private businesses, even something like Amazon, on how we can help more people," he says. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Jan. 2, 2018

TAMPA — John D. Couris spent his first week on the job as Tampa General Hospital's new chief executive holed up inside the island-bound institution, bracing for Hurricane Irma.

Despite the pressure that comes with securing the region's only Level 1 Trauma Center for a potentially catastrophic Category 5 storm, Couris said it was the perfect way to get a feel for the team of more than 8,000 people the hospital employs.

"Our staff handled the storm flawlessly," Couris said during a recent interview, his first since taking over the Davis Islands hospital on Sept. 1. "We train all year for something like this. We were prepared. Everyone worked together and we never lost power."

Along with doing patient rounds beside nurses and doctors, Couris helped prepare meals for the staff during the worst of the storm.

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"I wasn't just sitting here inside this office," said Couris, 50, who returns to Tampa Bay after a seven-year stint as CEO of Jupiter Medical Center, a 327-bed nonprofit hospital in Palm Beach County. Before that, he worked for the BayCare hospital system, including as a vice president at Morton Plant Mease Health Care in Clearwater beginning in 2000. He was there for six years before becoming chief operating officer of Morton Plant Mease North Bay Hospital in New Port Richey.

When he got the call from a head hunter about the open CEO job at Tampa General, it was a no-brainer, Couris said.

"To lead a hospital like Tampa General, which has such a rich history and is one of the largest and most respected institutions in the region, is a privilege and an honor," he said.

Couris already knew the area from the time he spent with BayCare, and settled quickly with his family in the Ballast Point neighborhood of South Tampa. His son, 20, is a student at Florida Atlantic University and his 16-year-old daughter is enrolled at Tampa Preparatory School. The new CEO says the area's beaches are the best in the state. And when it comes to fishing, he prefers the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic.

He sees Tampa General as the crown jewel of his resume, a place where he can do his best work and stay until retirement. It's the biggest and most reputable hospital he's worked for since leaving an executive post at Massachusetts General Hospital to come to Florida.

"Tampa General is steeped in academia and has a strong relationship with USF. It's a safety net hospital and a teaching hospital, and has some of the largest and most impressive programs in the country," Couris said, referring to the so-called "safety nets" that treat uninsured and Medicaid patients and perform other charity care.

He went on to list accolades for the hospital's transplant, trauma and burn programs, among others. "People fly in from all over the world to have procedures done at Tampa General," he said.

Four months into Couris' tenure, members of the hospital's board of directors are pleased with his performance, said chairman, John Touchton Jr.

"You don't really know what you're going to get until you see someone in the trenches," Touchton said. "But after seeing what he's done in just four months, he has 100 percent confidence from the board to lead us to the next level."

As a runner who has taken on the Boston and New York City marathons, it's clear that Couris knows how to train for the long hauls. Touchton said he was struck by Couris' ability to be a big-picture thinker but also handle day-to-day matters.

"He's a tireless worker," he said. "He rolls up his sleeves every day, but he has the strategic insight to understand the changing landscape of the industry and chart where we are going."

One path Couris intends to take is expanding Tampa General's reach, both through outpatient services and telemedicine.

The hospital opened a free-standing emergency room and "healthplex" earlier this year in Brandon. He says he could see more openings like that in Pinellas and Pasco counties in the future.

"We're in the health and wellness business, not the sickness business," Couris said. As such, he sees a trend of driving more patients to seek preventative care instead of driving them into the hospital's emergency room.

Tampa General launched its own health app years ago, giving patients virtual access to doctors from their smartphones. Couris said this kind of access, to help someone with a common cold or sore throat and avoid the emergency room or urgent care clinic, is the future of medicine.

"A patient can see a doctor, address their symptoms and get a prescription sent to their pharmacy," Couris said of the app.

But he admitted the health care industry has a long way to go to be more useful and effective for patients.

"We have a lot to learn about how to be more consumer friendly," he said. "We could learn a lot from private businesses, even something like Amazon, on how we can help more people."

RELATED: Florida hospitals call for more funding in effort to address looming doctor shortage

During his time in Palm Beach, Couris said his hospital partnered with American Express to learn more about how the credit card company trained its staff and designed products to reach the largest number of consumers. He said it was an eye-opening experience.

"We're shifting paradigms right now," he said of the health care industry. "Innovation takes time, and I think health care is going to continue to evolve. But we need to be thinking more about how we can be more accessible to more people."

Couris has a track record of growing a hospital's profile, said Bobby Hendel, a trustee on the board of directors at Jupiter Medical Center. He said he was impressed by Couris' ability to lead from the moment he met him seven years ago in Palm Beach County.

"He took a small hospital and completely changed the face of it," Hendel said. "He was truly connected to the community, speaking at events and making presentations. He didn't sit in an ivory tower. "

Couris launched a $300 million fundraising campaign to expand the Jupiter hospital's programs, including introducing critically needed advanced cardiac care, expanded pediatric services and comprehensive stroke care. The hospital is about a third of the way through the expansion, Hendel said.

"It was his vision that brought in high-caliber doctors and instituted a $300 million expansion that elevated our little hospital into a regional medical center," he said. "Seasonal residents no longer had to go back north for medical care. Believe me, he is sorely missed down here."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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