James Patrick “Pat” Thornton has had a life-long passion for St. Vincent's HealthCare, dating back to 1935 when he was born at the Jacksonville, Fla.-based system's flagship facility.
2012 Trustees of the Year: James Patrick Thornton—not-for-profit healthcare system
Strong ties to the community: Thornton employs experience to help guide system's growth
Since then, he has filled a variety of roles at the two-hospital organization. As a 12-year-old boy, he sold newspapers at St. Vincent's Medical Center Riverside by going from room to room. His loyalty continued as an adult—all of his children and most of his grandchildren were born there.
He also has a formal connection. Thornton, 76, joined the board of directors of St. Vincent's HealthCare Foundation in 1986, serving as chairman from 1995 to 1996. He also served on the board of St. Vincent's HealthCare from 2002 through 2011, including a term as chairman from 2009 to 2011. He still attends meetings, offers advice and is an honorary member of the foundation.
Throughout his years on both boards, Thornton relied on his business acumen, which he honed as a developer of rental apartments, to nurture the foundation and the health system, which is part of St. Louis-based Ascension Health.
“His knowledge of the issues and the problems and the challenges is invaluable,” says Moody Chisholm, president and CEO of St. Vincent's HealthCare.
For all of his accomplishments, Thornton has been selected as the 2012 Trustee of the Year representing not-for-profit healthcare systems.
When Thornton joined the foundation board in 1986, it had been in existence for only two years. That is why Thornton and the other board members set aside 10% of the money raised each year in an endowed fund; the remaining 90% was earmarked for specific projects.
Thornton's leadership also helped guide the health system board.
St. Vincent's HealthCare purchased 313-bed St. Luke's Hospital in Jacksonville from the Mayo Foundation in 2008, renaming the facility St. Vincent's Southside, but fully utilizing the capacity proved difficult. After the sale, Mayo's physicians as well as some non-Mayo physicians no longer admitted patients to the hospital.
To make matters worse, the weak economy also hurt the profitability of St. Vincent's. The system lost $60 million on operations in fiscal 2009, which ended June 30, 2009.
So Thornton and the board developed a turnaround strategy. They hired Chisholm, a veteran of the for-profit hospital sector, in February 2010. They also grew the health system's physician network, built up the census at St. Vincent's Southside, and planned an expansion into fast-growing Clay County, southwest of Jacksonville.
To improve the quality and efficiency of the surgical services at Southside, the healthcare system transferred experienced members of surgical nursing staff from Riverside to Southside. The change gave surgeons at Riverside the confidence to transfer about 800 cases to Southside, while new surgeons also were attracted to the revamped service. Surgical volume—inpatient and outpatient—at Southside surged from 2,633 cases in fiscal 2009 to 4,633 cases in fiscal 2011.
The system also developed a network of 150 employed physicians, who practice in 46 locations throughout metropolitan Jacksonville.
Chisholm says he relied on advice from Thornton, the developer, on where to locate new medical practices. “He knows the demographics of the community and he knows where people are moving and where things are slowing down.”
All of these efforts have improved St. Vincent's financial performance: It earned $400,000 on operations in fiscal 2011, up from a loss of $11 million in fiscal 2010.
To reach potential patients in suburban Clay County, St. Vincent's is scheduled to open a 98-bed hospital in 2013. The 175,000-square-foot hospital will have enough space to expand to a total of 250 beds.
HCA's Orange Park (Fla.) Medical Center, a 230-bed facility, is the only acute-care hospital in the county today. About 60% of the residents leave the county for medical care, according to St. Vincent's.
“All of our research told us there was dire need for a new hospital in the area,” Thornton says.
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