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Dr. Chiu grew pediatrics department, ran it "like a family" for 20 years

Published: March 14, 2012 By: Matt Galnor
Thomas T. Chiu. M.D., M.B.A. Thomas T. Chiu. M.D., M.B.A.

He will stay on as full-time faculty and move into new role when replacement is named

The late 1980s and early 1990s were hectic times for the pediatrics department at the University of Florida College of Medicine-Jacksonville.

Contracts were in the works, various partnerships were being negotiated and the role of the department in the community wasn’t clear.

The official relationship between UF and Jacksonville was still in its infancy, and rumors swirled about local children’s hospitals absorbing the department.

Thomas T. Chiu, M.D., M.B.A., was chief of the division of neonatology – a successful practice and a division many looked to as an example of a perfect blend of academics, clinical work and collaboration with other hospitals in the region. Chiu negotiated and implemented a citywide program that was so successful it became a national model.

So why would Chiu even think about stepping aside from that role to run a department in flux? Even though it might not seem like the best move for him on paper, Chiu thought it might make sense for children in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida if someone who knew the department and had a serious track record of partnerships was able to build it and grow it.

He applied and was appointed to the position.

"If your focus is what’s best for the children, you’re not going to go wrong," Chiu said. "Don’t think ‘what’s best for me’ or ‘what’s best for the money.’ If your focus is what’s best for children, for this community, for this region, you won’t be far off."

Sandy L. Barata, whom Chiu tapped as administrative director to help him attain his vision for the department, says he’s "a visionary always years ahead of many, a kind and honest man who treats everyone with ultimate respect.

"Under Dr. Chiu’s leadership, we have built pediatric programs and forged many relationships in the community, the nation and around the world that will continue for many years," she said. "It has been my privilege and honor to work with him and be able to say 'I was there when …’' "

Now, 20 years later, Chiu is stepping aside from his role as chair and will hand over the reins of a department that has more faculty than any other on the Jacksonville campus and produces two-thirds of the research funding that comes on campus.

Chiu’s vision and knowledge of the personal and professional needs of his staff are among the reasons for the department’s success. Many top faculty have been with the department at least 15 years – including the three internal candidates to replace him – and others have gone on to executive-level positions in the dean’s office.

Chiu, 64, will stay on as full-time faculty and said he hopes to spend more time doing the clinical work that he loves – and taking time out for coffee and breakfast with Anna, his wife of almost 40 years.

When Chiu first announced plans to step down as chair last year, his division chiefs and other faculty members signed a letter pleading with him to change his mind. Chiu didn’t. But he did seek out everyone who signed the letter so he could thank them individually, in person.

One of those people was Elisa A. Zenni, M.D., a pediatrics professor and associate dean for educational affairs.

Zenni was working in California when Chiu recruited her to Jacksonville in 1995. When she came for the interview it was Chiu himself who drove her around showing her the town. Knowing she was coming from California, he made a point to show her the beach.

Zenni was sold. Not by the beach – though she laughs that it certainly didn’t hurt. But by the fact the chair of the department took the time to spend a day with a prospective junior faculty member, which told her Chiu would be someone she’d want to work for.

"He runs the department with vision and strong business sense, but he runs it like a family. He knows you, he knows your children," Zenni said. "That’s why people stay here. We can thrive professionally and still be a part of a family."

More than any other department on campus, pediatrics has contracts all over town. There are agreements with Wolfson Children’s Hospital, as well as with Nemours. Faculty neonatologists do rounds at Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine and at Halifax Health Medical Center of Daytona Beach.

Chiu has been connecting and leveraging partnerships for years, even prior to becoming chair, establishing a citywide neonatology program. All of the hospitals worked together, sharing patients and staff to bring the infant mortality rate from three times the national average in the 1970s down in line with the rest of the country.

Chiu took it upon himself to learn the business end of things, earning a master’s in business administration from Jacksonville University. He graduated in 1988 – a time where there was little co-mingling between doctors and the business leaders.

Doctors questioned if he was a "real" doctor. Business executives were sure a doctor knew nothing about business. Now it’s becoming more common for physicians who run large organizations to have some type of business training.

Chiu has become the business mind in some of his medical endeavors as well, serving as state finance committee chairman for Children’s Medical Services.

He also runs the regional office, overseeing 23 counties from Jacksonville to Gainesville to Daytona Beach. Chiu also serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on childhood finance. He was honored this year with the Philip H. Gilbert Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service from the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition.

He’s worked seven days a week for years. He likes to keep doing rounds, but his schedule doesn’t allow for it during the week. So he goes nearly every weekend.

"People say 'You’re the chair. You don’t have to do that.' Well, I like to do clinical work," said Chiu. "I like to keep the skills."

He thought he’d have more time after stepping down as chair, but he was recently appointed medical director of external affairs for pediatrics, a role where he’ll be working closer on partnerships between UF and Wolfson.

He’s also organizing a trip for medical students to his native Hong Kong and China. His calendar’s getting fuller than he anticipated.

The coffee and breakfast on the weekends with Anna, Chiu laughs, might have to wait another year.

Thomas T. Chiu. M.D., M.B.A.

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