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Business Observer Friday, May 7, 2010 10 years ago

A Hearty Choice

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Hospitals tend to shy away from big risks. But a gusty move at a small Gulf Coast medical center could lead the way for others.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Venice Regional Medical Center administrators faced a thorny decision seven years ago when they decided to launch a heart surgery unit.

The safe choice would have been to bring on a team of surgeons connected to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, a much larger community medical center 30 miles to the north. The surgeons there were well known, and for the most part, well liked, in the medical community.

A decidedly more risky choice, however, lay in a small team of heart surgeons at the Ocala Heart Institute. The surgeons there had built a successful practice in Ocala and several other rural Florida communities on a theory somewhat out of the cardiovascular mainstream. That theory — modify, simplify and apply — called for the doctors to avoid the overzealousness that can be found in the field.

The Ocala institute's alternative philosophy was only one part of the risk. Administrators knew by not choosing the Sarasota group, the hospital could face the backlash of a tight nit medical community. Plus, a majority of the hospital's medical staff seemed to be pulling for the Sarasota group.

Still, Venice Regional, which was then owned by Bon Secours, a nonprofit organization founded by nuns, sided with risk: It chose the group from Ocala.

Seven years later, the gamble has clearly paid off.

The practice, now known locally has the Venice-Ocala Heart Center, has brought the hospital to the forefront of cardiology care on the Gulf Coast. The number of open heart surgeries conducted at the hospital has doubled since 2006, from less than 200 to more than 400 last year.

While the hospital, which was initially founded in 1951, has had cardiologists on staff for many years, it never performed heart surgeries prior to the Ocala group.

Dr. Jonathan Fong and Dr. Mateo Dayo, the pair of surgeons who run the center in Venice, say the group's modify and simplify model is a refreshing change of pace. The theory stems from the work of Dr. Denton Cooley, a renowned heart and transplant surgeon.

“Cardiologists often make things more complicated,” Dayo says. “But this work can be simplified.”

Simple, in this case, doesn't mean unsuccessful.

For example, the hospital has been cited four years in a row in a prominent Top 100 national survey of cardiovascular care conducted by Thomson Reuters. Only four Florida hospitals made the list last year, including Morton Plant in Clearwater and Munroe Regional Medical Center in Ocala. Munroe also utilizes the Ocala Heart Institute.

The annual survey examines the performance records for nearly 1,000 hospitals nationwide by studying outcomes from a variety of heart ailments.

The success of Venice Regional's cardiovascular program has reinvigorated a hospital that lost $12 million in 2004, the year before Naples-based Health Management Associates bought it from Bon Secours. Indeed, the 312-bed hospital set records in 2009 for overall surgeries performed and patients admitted.

But success didn't come easy. “It was really tough in the beginning,” says Dayo. “We were seen as strangers in town.”

That made it difficult to land clients through referrals from other doctors in the area, the lifeblood of a cardiology practice. The doctors say they combated the challenges through simple networking. Dayo, for one, says he made it a personal goal to approach at least one new physician every time he was in the doctors' lounge.

Even with the success, the surgeons aren't doing a victory dance just yet. They realize Sarasota Memorial Hospital still has a larger cardiovascular program and most people in the Sarasota-Bradenton area think of SMH first when it comes to heart surgery.

That just leaves the doctors with more goals to pursue.

“I want to be striving for something,” says Fong, “rather than have it be all said and done.”
— Mark Gordon

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