For many Iowans-and others across the nation-the name John Colloton is synonymous with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. It's mostly through his decades of leadership that the system evolved into the highly respected three-hospital, 772-bed teaching organization it is today.
When Colloton took over the top job at the Iowa City-based healthcare system in 1971 at the age of 41, he was already a longtime veteran of the organization, having started as an administrative intern in 1956 and working his way up the management ladder.
When he became director of the University Hospitals and assistant to the university president for statewide health services, he was intimately familiar with the condition of the hospital campus-physically worn since its construction in the 1920s and fiscally outdated after the inception of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s. In his first days on the job, Colloton already had a plan for redeveloping the system.
In a career spanning 44 years, Colloton made it his mission to transform the system "in a comprehensive and dramatic way-physically, operationally, philosophically-to bring a broad array of cutting-edge medical services to 3 million Iowans," he says. In the process, he racked up a long list of awards, memberships and distinctions for himself and the healthcare system. More than the accolades, though, Colloton, now 72, seems most proud of having helped his fellow Iowans gain improved access to healthcare services.
"I was reared and educated on the principle that each of us is accountable for talents that the good Lord bestows upon us, to utilize them to the maximum to make society better," Colloton says, who stepped down as director in 1993 and is now chairman emeritus.
Living through the Great Depression
Growing up in Mason City, Iowa, during the Great Depression, Colloton learned at a young age about challenges and taking responsibility for the greater good. When he was 11, his father contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanitarium. During a two-year absence, his maternal grandfather took over the $25 monthly house payments while Colloton and his four siblings pitched in to help the family pay the bills by shoveling snow, digging ditches and tackling whatever jobs they could find.
His father's illness and incapacitation dealt a blow to the young Colloton. "When you have a setback like that in your family, it's one that stays with you," he says. "A void has been created in your life, and it leaves such an indelible imprint in your psyche-you never forget that."
His experiences also taught him to seize opportunities when they came along, be respectful of others and help others when he could. "If you work hard and become educated and persevere, overcoming adversity, one will receive help from a lot of people along the way."
Throughout his childhood and teen years, Colloton scoured for odd jobs to continue helping with family expenses. He earned his bachelor's degree at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, working in the college cafeteria while at school and landing a prized summer job in a power company line gang. What he couldn't pay off during the summer months and between classes, he worked off during his stint in the Army after graduating from college.
While stationed in Germany for two years, Colloton learned from a good friend, who was in medical school, about the Hill-Burton Act of 1946 that led to a boom in hospital construction and created a soaring need for people to manage them.
In 1956, Colloton got his start in healthcare administration as an intern at University Hospitals while in his final year of the school's graduate program. After getting his master's degree in healthcare administration, he worked for a year at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, getting an introduction to hospital financing, before returning to University Hospitals in 1958 as its business manager. He would stay with the organization for the rest of his career, rising quickly through the ranks-becoming assistant director in 1963 and associate director in 1969.
Help from a Hall-of-Famer
Colloton assumed the helm of University Hospitals in 1971, when his mentor and 1991 Health Care Hall of Fame inductee, Gerhard Hartman, retired. In many ways, Colloton's leadership was a continuation of Hartman's, who had delegated much to Colloton during his quarter-century-long tenure as director of the hospitals. Hartman also headed the graduate program in health administration.
In the 1970s and 1980s, during Colloton's 22-year charge of University hospitals, he converted the sprawling campus-which used 28-bed open wards segregated by patients' ability to pay-into a modernized hospital complex with private rooms available to all patients regardless of financial class. He envisioned "all patients coming through one portal, receiving the same class of care," Colloton says.
Colloton changed more than the physical face of University Hospitals. By 1993, he had tripled the hospital staff, to more than 7,500, and doubled the number of patient visits, to 500,000, of which 92% were privately insured. Under his stewardship, 50 new services were added. He continually updated technology and focused on medical research, making the hospitals, once obscure to outsiders, ranked among the country's best teaching hospitals. In 1993, the otolaryngology department at University Hospitals was ranked No. 1 in U.S. News & World Report's rankings. Every year since 1990, University Hospitals has been named among the top teaching hospitals in those rankings.
Asked whether he has any regrets despite his successes, Colloton, who retired from the organization in 1993, says he doesn't dwell on obstacles or setbacks, saying he always focuses on the task at hand as well as the larger goal. "You don't know what you're capable of till you're challenged to the fullest," he says.
"Many leaders are captives of the present," says Willard Boyd, president of the University of Iowa from 1969 to 1981. "(Colloton) had peripheral vision, intuition and understanding."
More importantly, he knew how to make his vision a reality and express his mission in a way that would draw others on board, those who worked with him say.
When University Hospitals was primarily an indigent-care referral facility, many Iowans traveled out of state for specialized care. Colloton sought to revolutionize hospital services at Iowa so that the facility could compete with the likes of the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, Minn. He appealed to friends, neighbors and any other Iowans who would listen, in the end, raising $500 million in private funding for building replacement facilities. By enlisting private funding, rather than state aid, Colloton brought Iowans into the process, instilling them with pride and loyalty for their state's hospitals. Iowa's only major teaching hospital eventually would provide care in-state for three out of every five families.
"He kept growing, never reaching a plateau," Boyd recalls. "The more challenges he faced, the better he got."
Colloton's manner of dealing with obstacles has always been the same. "He wasn't afraid of anything," Boyd says.
In his long tenure at University Hospitals, Colloton emphasized operational efficiency and in the 1980s became interested in healthcare's supply side, which at the time accounted for one-fifth of hospital expenses.
At Baxter International, where Colloton became a board member in 1989-a position he still holds today-his speaking manner often had his fellow members sitting on the edge of their seats.
"He was soft-spoken. He never raised his voice. ... He didn't have to," says longtime friend Vernon Loucks Jr., former chairman and CEO at Baxter, a healthcare supply giant based in Deerfield, Ill. "He would listen, say something and everyone would go, `Yeah, that makes sense.' "
Loucks remembers seeing Colloton pulling poster boards from his office closet that mapped out his long-range goals for the hospitals and walking into meetings with reams of papers, key points highlighted in yellow.
"He always did his homework," recalls another colleague, Samuel Levey, former head of the graduate program in healthcare administration.
By all accounts, Colloton was a hospital administrator who understood acutely the importance of relationships with patients and staff.
If a department chairman wasn't won over by his ideas, if someone expressed concerns about a fact or figure, Colloton would discuss it until that person's fears were assuaged, says Reginald Cooper, a friend and former chairman of the orthopedics department. Department heads were expected to perform, but Colloton worked with them to get the job done. "He was tough and hard-driving. He expected much from himself and he expected a lot from department chairs," Cooper says.
He talked with orderlies, aids, physicians, janitors and nurses. "I doubt there's anybody out there who didn't know who John was and vice versa," Loucks says. "I doubt there was anyone who wasn't touched by John in terms of building the University of Iowa Hospitals."