Father Knows Best

Lawrence Biondi radically remakes St. Louis University, leaving resentment in his wake

Quality doctors can leave universities and make a lot more money in private practice. Among medical schools, competition is fierce for those physicians serious about teaching, research and clinical practice.

Med schools are costly to run, making it essential to land physicians who can bring money into the school to help pay the bills.

SLU has been losing these doctors, say professors who've been attentive to the changes at the med school.

Biondi got his art museum, but the art department is in shambles.
Jennifer Silverberg
Biondi got his art museum, but the art department is in shambles.
Med-school faculty say they've been hurt, not helped, by the sale of SLU's hospital.
Jennifer Silverberg
Med-school faculty say they've been hurt, not helped, by the sale of SLU's hospital.

Monteleone has given the "national average" response to her faculty, as well. But, one senior professor counters, "I think it is a very naïve way of looking at it, because on the national scene, yes, there might be people who leave, but they are usually junior people who are moving to another institution to move up.

"But here, if you look at who left, they are heads of departments, people who are heads of programs, and as a result of their leaving, the program fell flat on its face."

In a medical school, an entire department may diminish, or fold, with the loss of one exemplary doctor. Those who have been at the school long enough to watch the exodus tally some of the most serious losses.

· Larry McBride, former chief cardiovascular surgeon, who moved to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida: Says one senior professor, "St. Louis University was the cardiovascular center in the Midwest, far better known than Washington University as far as cardiovascular surgery was concerned. Now we almost don't do any compared to them. It's been markedly reduced."

· Tom Miller, former head of surgery: Since Miller left SLU for the Veterans Affairs medical center in Richmond, Virginia, says one senior professor, "The surgery department is having a hard time attracting good surgeons."

· Virginia Herrmann, an esteemed breast surgeon who left for Washington University: According to a former SLU colleague, Helman is "nationally recognized in her field, a very prominent person."

· Doug McDonald, an orthopedic surgeon who also went to Wash. U.: One professor blames the current status of the department on the loss of McDonald, saying, "We have a very squalid orthopedic department that used to be very good."

Senior faculty members also refer to the decline of the school's nuclear-medicine division. The department had grown into "one of the best in the country" under the leadership of Robert Donati, says one senior professor. Donati went on to administration and has since resigned. Now, continues the professor, "in nuclear medicine, they can't offer the services because they're down to one half-time person. They can't offer services on various days because they don't have the people to do it."

With both Biondi and Monteleone unavailable for comment, SLU's media-relations department responds in an unsigned e-mail to RFT queries, stating, "Turnover at academic medical centers is a national issue." The faculty-turnover rate at SLU has increased slightly, according the media-relations report, but "the university continues to have excellent success in recruiting faculty to fill vacancies and has hired 48 new faculty last year and 44 this year."

A senior professor isn't impressed with the new hires, who, he claims, are "without academic credentials and academic interests."

The School of Medicine was once "the mecca of research at St. Louis University," says this senior professor.

The med school still receives 88 percent of the research funding that goes to the entire university. But, in recent years, SLU's national ranking, in terms of funding from the National Institutes of Health, has dropped markedly.

In 1996, according to the NIH Web site, SLU ranked 71st in the nation.

This year, it ranks 81st.

Many senior professors pin the plight of the School of Medicine not on national trends but on the sale of St. Louis University Hospital to Tenet in 1998.

"The hospital should never have been sold. A lot of us feel selling the hospital was a disastrous move," says one professor who's experienced the former years of plenty and the current drought.

Biondi and his advisers promoted the sale of the hospital, even though it was making millions for the university. There was enough money to pay for the School of Medicine, enough money to fund programs on North Campus, enough money to cover up Biondi's blunders.

For example, Biondi opened the Anheuser-Busch Eye Institute in 1993, against the advice of a number of ophthalmologists. It lost millions. However, says one senior professor, "the losses were obscured by the budget because the hospital made so much money."

SLU media relations says these figures are not available.

In 1997, Biondi, his advisers and his board of trustees foresaw disaster for SLU Hospital. Other university hospitals had begun losing money, so much so that those universities (Loyola of Chicago and Georgetown, for example) were dipping into their endowments to cover the deficits incurred by their medical facilities.

SLU Hospital was sold to Tenet Healthcare for $300 million. Of that money, $261 million went into an endowment for the health sciences.

"We blazed a trail," says Sandra Johnson. "Thank God we sold the hospital when it was sold, because that gave us an endowment to support the medical school. If we had kept the hospital, we would be in the position of Loyola, Georgetown -- who lost tremendous amounts of endowments to their hospital. We didn't have to go through that."

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