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Building the Miami Cancer Institute: Turning vision to reality

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The institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida, has come a long way in a short time. Dr. Leonard Kalman, Miami Cancer Institute’s chief medical officer, talked with us about the journey.

A decade ago, Baptist Health South Florida decided to build a cancer center.

Today, the Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Hospital, employs more than 110 physicians and nearly 2,000 workers. The Miami Cancer Institute is part of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Alliance, offering patients access to the latest treatments and access to clinical trials.

Dr. Leonard Kalman, deputy director and chief medical officer of the Miami Cancer Institute, has played a critical role in the institute’s development. He cited the backing of top leadership in the institute’s success.

“The first thing, always, if you’re doing anything in a health system, you’ve got to have the support of the C-suite,” he says. “They’ve got to want to do it. That's been very strong from the beginning, and that continues now.”

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Kalman talks about the development of the institute and keys to its success.

“We had a vision of what we wanted to be focusing on clinical expertise and clinical trials,” Kalman says. (See part of our conversation in this video. The story continues below.)

Getting started

The Miami Cancer Institute opened its $430 million building in 2017. Kalman said a market analysis showed strong potential for a new cancer institute in South Florida.

The institute has always had a strong vision, Kalman says. In its first decade, Kalman says the focus has been on “clinical expertise.”

In the beginning, the institute pursued partnerships. Rather than focusing on basic research, the institute has partnered with Florida International University, giving doctors access to basic and translational research.

In joining the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Alliance, the Miami Cancer Institute gained a major academic partner. “We felt it was very important early on to have that kind of relationship,” Kalman says.

Memorial Sloan Kettering requires a careful analysis before welcoming members to its cancer alliance.

“We went through the process that was a very rigorous process, looking at our standards of care and resources and capabilities. And we passed with flying colors,” he says.

Kalman had developed an oncology practice, Advanced Medical Specialties, before joining Baptist Health in 2014. The practice became part of Baptist Health and was a foundational piece of the cancer institute.

“My large medical oncology practice that I ran for many years was a key element to bring into the Cancer Institute,” he says. “There are examples in other parts of the country where cancer institutes had trouble launching because the major medical oncology group was not willing to join the cancer institute.”

Recruiting talent

In wooing physicians to the new cancer institute, Kalman says there were some initial challenges in recruiting in the early days. The institute was reaching out to physicians working at well-established cancer centers with systems in place for decades.

"We're only seven years into this new building. So we're fairly new, and people come, and they need to be builders," he says.

“Here, you have to be a little bit of a pioneer, and be willing to search for the answer,” Kalman says. “But those are the kinds of people that we attract.”

As the cancer institute has grown, Kalman says it’s become attractive to doctors.

“Now it's easier, because now we're established,” he says of recruiting. “So no one questions, you know, whether you're going to have an academic career. And in fact, we have had people recruited away from us to lead departments and divisions at other academic institutions.”

The institute’s location in Miami can be a selling point to those who like the idea of living in South Florida. But increasingly, the rising price of housing in the Miami market is also becoming a bit of a hurdle in recruiting, Kalman says.

“The biggest challenge now turns out to be the cost of housing in Miami,” Kalman says. “The cost of housing has gone up. So that's become a challenge. It was not a challenge seven, eight years ago.”

Rare patient base

At Miami Cancer Institute, 70% of the patients are Hispanic, far higher than most areas, Kalman says. Nationwide, about 19% of the U.S. population is Hispanic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For cancer researchers and clinicians, the Miami Cancer Institute offers greater insights into the development of the disease in Hispanic patients and potential interventions.

“If you are doing clinical trials, you have a very unique population,” Kalman says.

Kalman points out that the area’s Hispanic patients represent a host of different cultures.

“They’re from many different nations, different languages, different cultures that we have to understand, and we're still working to do so,” Kalman says.

The institute is also looking at new translation technologies to make sure that clinicians are communicating effectively with patients, he says.

Everyone matters

The cancer institute is striving to give patients a great experience, Kalman says. In addition to getting treatment for their illness, patients need courtesy and respect.

“We get great feedback from our patients that they feel when they come in here that they're treated special, that people really look them in the eye and care about them,” Kalman says. “And it's critical, I think, for your success and your reputation.”

Doctors are asked to focus on treating patients and families well, and to be respectful to staff, he says.

But Miami Cancer Institute is also reinforcing that all employees, in every role, play an important part in the organization’s success.

“When we have our town halls, we really tried to stress to everyone how important every last person is,” Kalman says.

He talks about the importance of seemingly small gestures, such as a valet offering a smile or a guard giving a friendly wave and welcoming the patient.

“All those things just lower that level of tension and anxiety that everyone has walking into a cancer center, whether you're a patient or relative, or you're about to be diagnosed, you don't know whether you have cancer or not,” she says. “So in many different ways, repetitively, we try to spread that message. And I think it's taken hold.”

When cancer patients complete radiation or other treatments, they ring a bell. A recent promotional video featured a maintenance employee, who takes pride in fixing the bell and feels like he’s part of something important, Kalman recalls.

“We want every one of our employees to feel that what they're doing is important to the patient's journey,” Kalman says.


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