Now that he's been named Tampa General Hospital's new chief executive officer, Jim Burkhart and his wife are in full-fledged house-hunting mode. He's preparing for a move from Shands Jacksonville Medical Center, where he served as president and CEO since 2003.
The Tennessee native and health care veteran believes his experience at the 695-bed urban academic hospital will translate well to Tampa General, which has 1,018 beds and an active medical residency program with the University of South Florida's College of Medicine.
Burkhart will remain a consultant at Shands for another month, but he is visiting Tampa regularly and is reading up on his new hometown. He recently spoke with The Tampa Tribune about his new post and the biggest challenges facing the independent hospital.
Q: What are your priorities when you take the helm at Tampa General on March 1?
A: "I don't think I can have one No. 1 priority. I think I need to have three No. 1 priorities.
"First, it's the legislative issues and implementing the Affordable Care Act and figuring how we get from today to then. We have a couple of years, … but jumping from one curb to another is not always easy.
"The second one is the strategic plan and working with the board … and medical staff and community and USF on the plan and goals for the future. And that needs to start immediately. I need to learn a lot, but it's all in trying to learn a strategy.
"And the last thing is the relationship piece. We really need to work hard and thoughtfully on the relationship between USF and Tampa General in particular. I don't want us to waste our energy on the wrong things. There's a lot of work to be done. So I want to focus on the right things.
"To do that, you have to get some of the things out on the table. You have to get some of the elephants in the room out there. You have to deal with those. You have to try and get the energy spun in a positive direction so you are moving forward."
Q: Local leaders speak openly about tensions between Tampa General and the USF Health College of Medicine, in part as USF Health CEO Stephen Klasko has forged new partnerships with other area hospitals.
USF also competes on the academic front with Shands Jacksonville's partner, the University of Florida College of Medicine. How can you use your decade of work with the UF medical school to help move Tampa General and USF Health forward?
A: "I do think (my work with UF) brings a perspective to the table. It is important for the long-term relationship that I have worked so closely with UF. I think that is a good thing."
Klasko "is very intelligent and well-spoken and has a vision in mind from his perspective. The art here is to see how we can make those visions similar and work together in a very strong way.
"I think USF and Tampa General are joined at the hip. They operate differently than UF, … but that's the major relationship between those two parties: Tampa General with USF and USF with Tampa General."
Q: Tampa, like Jacksonville, has a highly competitive health care market, with hospital systems expanding and partnering at a rapid pace. How do you see Tampa General moving forward in this atmosphere?
A: "I'm not a stranger to competition. (It makes you ask_) 'How do we work smarter? Where do we need to be? What relationships do we need to have in the marketplace? What do those look like and how do we want that to look?
"There's everything from partnerships to affiliations to co-management agreements. There are 100 different ways to set up a relationship. … Each case is unique. And what I need to do is see what's there first, then see what's worked well and see where the struggles or the frictions have happened and why. And then I figure it out with my board of directors and Dean Klasko as well as all of his board members and others.
"My job is to come in … and help focus on what Tampa General needs to look like five, 10 years from now."
Q: Tampa General is among the busiest hospitals in the nation for organ transplants. At Shands Jacksonville, you led the decision to shut down that hospital's kidney transplant program in 2011 after critical reviews. How will that experience help you at Tampa General?
A: "The good news is that we can build on the success of the program Tampa General has. I like the situation there a lot better than the situation I was faced with here (in Jacksonville). We were just not doing very many kidney transplants. … We were doing 30 or less a year.
"You cannot be at the top of your game, and I'm not saying there was anything wrong with us, but you cannot be at the top of your game if you have a bad (health) outcome. Your numbers look bad when you have that low number. … So we decided it was just something we wouldn't do.
"When tough decisions have to be made, after you get all the facts, I am not afraid to come to that kind of decision with key leaders and the board."
Q: You're the current president of the Safety Net Alliance of Florida, a consortium of 14 Florida hospitals that treats 40 percent of the state's charity cases and 40 percent of Medicaid cases. Both Tampa General and Shands Jacksonville are active members, and it's where you met outgoing Tampa CEO Ron Hytoff.
The Alliance fights for its share of state and federal money for treating the poor, but that pool of money is a regular source of political fights in Tallahassee and Washington. Why should taxpayers worry about the financial well-being of safety-net hospitals?
A: "We all have a responsibility to take care of our citizenry from the standpoint of basic needs. ... (There are people) that choose not to take care of themselves or choose not to get insurance when they could. As opposed to (another group) who get in situations where the cost of their care is way beyond their means, regardless of whether they would help to pay or not. That (group) is where in my opinion we as a community have a responsibility to help."
Q: What is your initial take on the 6,400 employees at Tampa General?
A: "I'm somebody who tends to like to get to know individuals and be able to call them by their first name. I pride myself in being able to do that in and around the hospital. I've got a lot more names to learn in Tampa than the 3,600 employees I have here. Obviously I don't know all of them, but I know lots of them.
"I would say to the employees that I look forward to getting to know them. They have an outstanding organization. They have an extremely strong leadership team in place. They have a wonderfully strong and supportive board in place, and I look forward to arriving there and getting to know everyone.
Q: You've spent your career in the South. What do you want the community to know about you?
A: "I think I'm an approachable person, a person who is seasoned and seen a lot of different things. I think I'm an individual who is very involved, not only in the organization but also in the community. And I plan to be involved in Tampa once I get there. … I look forward to doing that."