Dr. Stephen Klasko in his office at Jefferson Health System, where he is bringing new ideas and unbridled optimism to the practice of healthcare.
No one would claim that Dr. Stephen Klasko lacks chutzpah. The president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health System—one of the country’s most respected hospitals, now in its 190th year—is holding court in his sun-splashed office. He recounts with a grin the day last year when the Philadelphia 76ers and Jefferson’s Rothman Institute announced their partnership at center court of the Wells Fargo Arena. The exuberant 61-year-old, wearing an elegant dark suit, white shirt, and silk tie, leaps up from the sofa to illustrate his baller story.
“I started doing some trash talking to the coach and the players, saying the game is not so hard,” recalls Klasko, who admits he’s played some ball in his day despite his modest height. “So Coach Brown says, ‘Okay, Steve. Here’s the ball.’ So I get to the top of the key. Sonny Hill [a basketball legend] was there in his fur coat. He told me later it was like watching a train wreck….” This is the point in the story where things could go terribly, disastrously wrong, and Klasko knows it. He pauses for dramatic effect. “I do this two-handed set shot, and you know what? It’s a swish, honest to God.”
Klasko beams at the memory. “Let’s face it, it was sheer luck. If I’d overanalyzed it, I would’ve shot an air ball.” But the real story is that Klasko is a master of calculated risk. He’s the guy who hears “yes” when everyone else around him hears, “Forget it, not a chance—are you kidding me?” He calls it his “no-limits approach.” He’s brought that philosophy to everything from restructuring Jefferson, which treats more than a million patients annually and employs 9,000 people, to running the Dublin Marathon on a leg injured with a shredded IT band.
That persistence has buoyed him along through life and career. While growing up in Havertown, he transformed himself from the class clown into a student athlete who graduated from Lehigh University in three years, then earned his medical degree from Hahnemann University and opened a successful obgyn practice in Allentown. He showed that same determination after getting turned down for the MBA program at small-time Allentown College of Saint Francis de Sales (now DeSales University) because he didn’t have the prerequisite economics courses—so instead he applied to the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School for his MBA. He was accepted.
His next career move was another high-risk maneuver: becoming dean of Drexel University’s College of Medicine after the affiliated Allegheny Health Network went bankrupt with an estimated $25 million to $30 million in debt. “I remember during the interview, [Drexel] President Papadakis said to me, ‘Look, Steve, anyone can sit on their butt and write books in Allentown, but if you really believe in this stuff, you’ll take this job,’” says Klasko. “I thought, You dare me? I’ll take it.”
After nine years as CEO of USF Health in Tampa and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida, he rolled the dice again in 2014 and took over a newly created joint position that combined the presidency of Thomas Jefferson University with the CEO position at Jefferson Health.
So how different is Jefferson now? Klasko responds with a Buckminster Fuller quote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
With the “reimagine healthcare” campaign it launched last year now in full force, Jefferson currently sports an innovative new structure to promote cooperation, cross-fertilization, and simply a better environment for trying new solutions. “We totally reformed how we look at Jefferson, with four equal pillars: academic, clinical, innovation, philanthropy,” Klasko says. “No academic medical center has ever done this. We will do whatever it takes to be optimistic about the future.”
Much of that optimism is being generated by “cool” new technology programs. Klasko is implementing pilot programs; partnering with commercial ventures; launching virtual medical rounds, virtual triage, telemedicine programs, and medical simulation centers to assess and train doctors on new procedures; and using mathematical data analytics to improve patient care.
“The secret sauce behind the new Jeff and my leadership,” explains Klasko, “is not that I’m smarter or work harder. People like working here, and we’ve had the same problems that other hospitals have. At the end of the day, fun doesn’t change the math, but fun gives you a way out of that math. We are the only academic hospital that’s more optimistic about our future than our past.”