Dr. Stephanie Correa, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology) founded Animal Cancer Clinic Care in 2004 and today ACCC has 2 stand alone facilities and five outpatient clinics throughout Florida. She talks about her first position after completing her residency and why she decided to start her own hospital. Dr. Correa has created a company where hospital culture and patient care are priorities. She explains the hospital’s mission statement and core values and how the doctors and staff live these through HOPE, CARE and OUTCOME.
Laura: Today I'm speaking with Dr. Stephanie Correa, a board certified oncologist who is the founder and chief of staff of Animal Cancer Clinic Care located in Fort Lauderdale. There are also six outpatient facilities throughout Florida. Dr. Correa graduated from veterinary school at the University of Florida, completed an internship at AMC in New York, where she also started her oncology residency and then completed the program at Louisiana State University. ACCC provides chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, clinical trials, nutritional support and bereavement counseling. The hospital has seen tremendous growth over the years and has become Florida's leading veterinary oncology practice. Dr. Correa, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I'm excited to talk more about your hospital and share your insights with other veterinarians about your career, owning a hospital, navigating challenges, among other things.
Dr Stephanie Correa: I'm happy to be here today, Laura. Thank you for the opportunity.
Laura: Absolutely. So tell me, you completed your residency, what did you do? What was your first position after your residency?
Dr Stephanie Correa: So I moved back home after my residency. And home is, as you know, South Florida. And I started my first position as a staff oncologist at a large sort of what I would call traditional multi-specialty practice. Everybody under the same roof, every sort of specialty represented in the same building. And I stayed there for close to three years at that practice. So that was my first job out of my residency.
Laura: Were you with another oncologist at that hospital?
Dr Stephanie Correa: I was not. I was a solo oncologist. So I came into that practice and really was able to create my own oncology service and I was given the flexibility and ability to kind of manage that service the way I saw best for my clients and patients. So that was a really it was a great opportunity and a great stepping stone, actually, to then be able to move into owning my own practice.
Laura: So was that your next move, Stephanie?
Dr Stephanie Correa: That's exactly right. So I finished working at the multi-specialty hospital. And when I was there, I actually sort of saw things a little differently from the cancer clients perspective. And when I say a little differently, I mean that a client and a patient with cancer needs almost more than just the typical multi-specialty patient. So oncology is oncologist surgery, you know, medical oncology and radiation oncology. But there's even more to it than that. It's supporting the client, too. And I felt like similar to what we see on the human side with cancer centers of America and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, like these institutions that are dedicated to just supporting the cancer patients. I felt like in veterinary medicine, oncology really needed that sort of space, almost like a specialized specialty service that delivered oncology care.
Laura: So you left the hospital, started your own practice. That was a big move and a bold move.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah, it was. It definitely was. So I started just by leasing space in and another specialty hospital. But the specialty hospital was a niche specialty hospital as an ophthalmology practice. And I was able to lease a consult room and a small area in like the back treatment room that I could put my blood machines and store some of my chemo drugs. And so that's sort of the way I started. And yes, it was a big move. And I remember sort of sitting there in the early days kind of watching the appointment book and, you know, kind of hoping that people would come, you know. And I had you know, I hired two nurses. I had my blood machines, my chemo drugs. And then I was sort of waiting. And, you know, fortunately, it didn't take too long, actually. After about six months in that location, I then started another location about 30 miles south and so then I was, you know, seeing patients in two locations and about a year later opened a third location about 40 miles south again. So. Yeah, it was. It was it is kind of. It was a leap. It was definitely a leap.
Laura: Wow. So when did you build your headquarters in Fort Lauderdale?
Dr Stephanie Correa: So I started Animal Cancer Clinic Care in 2004 and then by 2007, we had three locations. And all of a sudden we were so busy. I mean, we could not keep up. We were booked out a month in advance. I was traveling to those three locations. But what I really realized is that I needed the full gamut of services to really be able to support the cancer patients. So we started to build the freestanding hospital in Fort Lauderdale. We purchased the land in 2008 and then we built the hospital in 2009 and opened in August of 2009. And so our Fort Lauderdale hospital, of course, was able to offer radiation therapy services, surgical oncology, kind of all the ancillary services. We also have internal medicine to support the cancer patient and cardiology to support the cancer patients. And then after Fort Lauderdale was built, we started to call our other locations our "outpatient" or "satellite" locations where we could do all the outpatient treatments. So people didn't have to drive with their pets, you know, because these people are bringing pets to us sometimes once a week, sometimes more than that. So they could do all their follow up care in our outpatient satellite locations and all of that, I call it the big stuff, could get done in our centralized Fort Lauderdale location.
Laura: And so that's when you added medicine, surgery, radiation oncology, all of that in 2010 when you opened the new facility.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah. So August of 2009, actually, we were like up and running with radiation therapy, surgery, everything. Yes, that's right when we opened the Fort Lauderdale facility. And, you know, just recently, actually, so just January of this year, we opened another freestanding hospital in Orlando, which is about three hours from our Fort Lauderdale location. So now we have two sort of freestanding cancer hospitals that offer multiple services and we have five outpatient satellite hospitals.
Laura: And do you have radiation oncology in Orlando also?
Dr Stephanie Correa: So right now, we don't have radiation oncology in Orlando. Radiation oncology is taking a sort of an interesting path lately. So we recently upgraded our linear accelerator in our Fort Lauderdale location and saw our linear accelerator is capable of stereotactic radiotherapy, rapid arc radiotherapy. All of these letters like OBI and all of these, you know, IMRT and all of these things that these new new novel machines do. And so what we do right now is we actually transport patients from our northern locations to our Fort Lauderdale locations because we're able to do the whole radiation therapy protocol for our patients sometimes in two or three treatments. So for right now, it's working very well to have all of the radiation therapy centralized in Fort Lauderdale. But what we do offer in Orlando is medical oncology, of course, surgical oncology and internal medicine to support the cancer patient because oncology and internal medicine kind of go hand in hand. Right. So that referring veterinarians know that the pet is sick and they suspect that it's cancer. But then we need the internal medicine doctor to diagnose the cancer for us. So to do the ultrasounds and the needle aspirates and the biopsies and all the diagnostic tests because, you know, oncologists were really good at treating the cancer. We are not really that good at diagnosing it. So we realized that that's a limitation for an oncologist. So we do have internal medicine support in our hospitals.
Laura: What does a typical day look like and tell me more about your doctors schedules and how they manage their caseload?
Dr Stephanie Correa: So in any given day. So, for example, let's say on a Monday, so we may have three or four locations running on any given day. And each oncologist is kind of responsible for structuring their day. I feel like doctors know how the flow, how they work best. You know, some doctors like to start at 8 o'clock. Some doctors like to start at 9:30. Some doctors like to see, you know, appointments, double booked. Some doctors like to see appointments over lunch. Some doctors need a lunch break. I need a lunch. I always take a lunch break. I get really grumpy if I don't eat. So my doctors really structure their appointments and their days the way that it works best for them. Each doctor has a team of nurses, usually three or four nurses per doctor. And, you know, they might do rounds in the morning and have a team meeting. OK. Group, you know, how are we going to manage this day? What are we going to do? Here we go. But that happens. And because we're multi-location, that happens in every location with every doctor, with every team, kind of individually. But the nice thing is that our software system is connected. So we're all connected via cloud. So any medical oncologist in any location can call any other medical oncologist and say, hey, can you look on the computer at this patient? Take a quick look for me. What do you think? So, you know, we're constantly kind of you know, we use the Google platform so we can sort of Skype or Google back and forth. And we feel connected because of our technology, even though we're not in the same building.
Laura: Everybody works differently, as you said, and to have that freedom to schedule the way that they work the best and for their team. That's a tremendous asset. And I'm sure your doctors love it.
Dr Stephanie Correa: They love it, right? They love it. And, you know, it takes away that sort of pressure of feeling like you've got to be there between this time and this time and you can't leave. And, you know, we're really a family friendly hospital. We just really try to prioritize this whole idea of balance. Right. So I want to have your best self at work. And I feel like to have your best self at work, you need to be able to kind of have your best self at home, too, so that's certainly something that is a part of the culture here at a ACCC.
Laura: So you've focused a lot recently on culture and implementing changes to support this. Can you tell me more about that, Stephanie?
Laura: I you know, I don't know that it's actually any sort of change. So our culture has always been really strong. It's just that I didn't actually have the words to be able to communicate what our culture is. And so we sat down and we sort of re-created our mission statements. We didn't really change it, but we recreated it by giving words. And so, for example, we use the word hope a lot in our practice, like when we talk to each other. You know, if we're having a really hard day and I'm with my nurses and maybe somethings, we have a difficult client or a difficult situation, I might look at my nurse and say, hey, guys, what are we giving here? And they'll look at me and they'll go, hey, doc, we're giving hope here. And I say, yeah, we're giving hope here. So hope has always been a part of our sort of culture, but now we have given meaning to the word hope. And what I mean by that is that we actually say in our mission statement that our defining attitude is hope. And for us, hope stands for healing,optimism, patience and empathy. So hope stands for those four things. And that is actually what we're giving to clients. And when I say to clients, I mean, the people that we care for and we use the word care to say these are our relationships and our relationships that we care for are client, animal patient, referring veterinarian and employee. So care stands for those key relationships. And then we also use the word outcome. So what are we providing to our key relationships? Care? We're providing optimal outcomes. And so for us, the word outcomes means our core competencies. Right. So our core competencies in oncology, utilization of technology, communication, methodology and service. So we've sort of given meaning through acronyms to words that define what our culture actually is. And that was a big job, but an incredibly important job, because now whenever we have a company meeting, whenever we have a piece of a newsletter or a piece of marketing material that goes out to the public, we're able to communicate what we all know and understand internally. We're able to communicate that to our clients, the referring veterinarians. So we're able to communicate that out. So, yes, we've been working a lot on culture. We actually call our staff meetings that we have quarterly. We call them culture meetings and we talk about our culture. Each company meeting focuses on one of our core competencies. So, for example, when we talked about UT, which is utilization of technology our radiation oncologist came and did a whole lecture to our group on our new machine, our new linear accelerator. So we talked about radiation therapy. We've talked about oncology as one of our core competencies. We read our mission statement before every meeting. And it's not just reading it, but we you know, when I read the mission statement, often time my employees get tears in their eyes because we feel like we live the mission. You know, it's not just a statement that's hanging up on the wall like we live it. We're giving hope, guys like this is what we do. And so it's incredibly important here. And it makes, it gives us all a purpose for what we're doing and we can actually verbalize that purpose.
Laura: And I'm sure with the nature of your medicine, of oncology, something like this is so important just to keep everybody together and hopeful and motivated, because there are probably a lot more tough times.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah, exactly right. I mean, this field like it's essential actually in this field of what we do every day, day in and day out to have this sort of foundational support and foundational culture. Yeah, absolutely.
Laura: When you're hiring new doctors and new technicians and nurses, are there specific qualities that you look for?
Dr Stephanie Correa: I mean, kind of, you know, just what we, this word hope, you know? So I look for people that are kind of naturally optimistic, enthusiastic. And that's what, it's tricky. Right. It's tricky. But all of the doctors that are coming out of their residencies, they're so well-trained. The training programs, they're so good. And and they're all excellent, excellent doctors. But really, what I'm looking for, I'm looking for almost like an essence of the person. Like, you know, just their sort of overall ability to fit into this culture that we have here. And I think sometimes it sounds funny when you're talking about an oncology practice you're looking for somebody that's optimistic. But what I find is that oncologists may be the most optimistic specialists that there is. Right. Because any oncologists you talk to, they'll tell you. Well, I treated, you know, this many osteosarcomas and they lived for, like, you know, three years. We remember the good like that might have been two out of ten, but those are the ones that we remember. That's what keeps us going. So I'm kind of looking for that natural hopefulness, natural optimism, natural enthusiasm to kind of try new things and be sort of on the edge. And also, of course, relate ability to client like ability to talk to client, to empathize, to have patients to be understanding. Those are all things that are critically important to you know, what we do each day, but also to fitting into this culture.
Laura: Because your clients become a part of your family.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, we're seeing them so often. You know, we end up knowing everything about them. So. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Laura: And you have families that come from as far as Puerto Rico.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Oh, yes. Right. Right. So we have families that come from the Caribbean, South America, the Bahamas, you know, all over the state of Florida. Yes. And, you know, we have a lot of clients that are snowbirds, too. So they're coming from the northeast and they're down here for the spring. And then we tell them, OK, we'll see you back next spring, you know, and we kind of go back and forth that way, too. So that's nice.
Laura: What would you say are the biggest challenges of hospital ownership?
Laura: Well, you know, we're in a period right now that's incredibly challenging. I would say that the unknown is really the most challenging. Like, I feel a lot of times like, you know, I'm on this sailboat and I'm like standing out front trying to look at the waters ahead and sort of figure out where my ship is going to go and who would have ever thought standing out front, looking ahead, that we'd be facing this pandemic. This national crisis and an emergency that we're in right now. So I think that's the hardest part of owning the business and, you know, just keeping our employees well and able to work, you know, and and taking care of it. I feel an incredible responsibility to all of our employees. You know, we have 70 plus employees right now. And I feel incredibly responsible for taking care of them and making sure we all get through this situation together.
Laura: How are you navigating it?
Dr Stephanie Correa: So we've come up with lots of protocols and policies to keep us safe. The thing that's working really well for us right now is this idea of concierge or curbside appointments. So in all our locations, we are not allowing clients into the building and we're able to sort of control the distance that we are between ourselves and our clients by keeping our clients in the car. We go out, we use our own leashes, we take the dogs out of the car with our own leashes. We bring them into the building. We do whatever treatment needs to be done. We will call the clients on the phone. That doesn't work as well for me because I really like to see clients face to face. So I just I do go out to the parking lot, but I stand far back from the car. They put the window down. We talk that way. My other doctors do that too, our field is such a personal, relationship oriented field. It's a little hard to do these consults on the phone. So we do go out to the parking lot. The pet goes back into the car and the clients drive away. So it is working for us right now to do this curbside appointment.
Laura: That's great, because it as you mentioned, they need to come. Yes. There's no question they need to come for their treatments.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Exactly. These are patients that will die without these treatments. So fortunately, the state of Florida agrees with us and has deemed us an essential business. So we right now are able to continue operations. But of course, the number one priority for me is to keep my employees safe. So we've implemented all of these things so that we are minimizing to eliminating contact with clients completely.
Laura: So what are some of the proudest moments of your career?
You know, the thing I'm most proud of is this idea of giving the people that come to work at ACCC. Giving them this sort of purpose and mission. It's not just like they have a job when they come here. You know, they have it. They have a career. They have a purpose. They have a mission. Like I have nurses that started with me when they were 18 years old, maybe an assistant, you know. And now the one I'm thinking of specifically is she's running my radiation therapy department. I mean, running the linear accelerator, running the C.T. scan. I mean, she's the manager of radiation therapy for a multi-location oncology practice. And I have multiple stories of that. You know, my my nursing staff, they tend to come in. They tend to stay unless they move somewhere or get relocated because of a spouse job or something like that. So that's the thing I'm the most proud of is my people, you know, and what they were able to do in this practice.
Laura: I mean, that's what it's all about, relationships and creating an environment where they're thriving. I mean, that has to be so rewarding.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah. And I feel like that's my responsibility. Right. To move people and find their potential and find their strengths and be able to sort of move them into a position where they're reaching their potential. Like my wonderful like head nurse manager who manages the entire operation. She started with me basically just as a technician. And now she's running seven clinics and managing a staff of 50 nurses and, you know, it's just incredible to see how she's grown yeah grown over the years. And so that's the thing I'm most proud of. And I really when I look at it, that's the thing I feel best about.
Laura: That says so much about your hospital and about you as a person and a leader and a doctor.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. Yeah. It's good.
Laura: Are there specific charities that your hospital supports on a regular basis or do you support a variety?
Dr Stephanie Correa: We actually have our own. We call it the Animal Cancer Clinic Care Assistance Fund. And it is a fund that people donate to. And we do fundraising events for. And that money is used for clients that maybe start a treatment protocol for their pet. But don't have the finances to finish the treatment protocols, so we'll fund treatments within our seven locations for clients that need financial assistance. And so we do some fun events to help that assistance fund like what we do pumpkin patch pictures. And we do a big Santa event around December where we, the Humane Society comes to our practice and we have some other vendors come and it's kind of a carnival with Santa pictures and adoptions. And we take donations for our assistance fund there. That's kind of a fun event. We do some community outreach as well. That's not associated with our assistance fund. So we do walks with the Humane Society, kind of some of the standard things that other specialty practices do. But our assistance fund is really kind of near and dear to our heart. That's the thing we work on the most.
Laura: And so when a client needs assistance, they would just apply for that?
Dr Stephanie Correa: I have a board kind of made up of a few of the nurses and an administrative person, a CSR and clients can apply for that. And then that board sort of makes a final decision about who gets those funds and then other clients a lot of times, we have information about the fund at each of our front desks in each of our locations. And so clients often times will see that and then donate to it on their own without us even asking. So, yes we operate it that way.
Laura: Terrific idea. And I think probably, too, that contributes a lot to your culture.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Right? Right. We used to ask clients, you know, clients would ask us actually, hey, how can I help? Like, what can I do? Can I make a donation somewhere? And so for a while, we would have them go online and donate, let's say, to the Morris Animal Health Foundation or to the ACVM Foundation. But clients really wanted to see their dollars used to locally. Like for somebody in the local area. So this assistance fund really meets that goal of clients being able to see those dollars go directly to help somebody treat their pet with cancer.
Laura: What's next for ACCC Stephanie?
Dr Stephanie Correa: Hm, what's next for ACCC? We're going to keep metastasizing, how about that? We're going to like keep metastasizing through the state of Florida, maybe further than that. So that's what I see. Yeah.
Laura: Yeah, that's exciting.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah. Yeah, it is. That is. I couldn't be more pleased with the group of people and the kind of protocols and processes and procedures and the way we practice and the flow and the group. And you know, it's a lot of hard work. It's an incredibly hard thing to do, but it's also incredibly fulfilling. And I love the creative portion of owning a business, of maybe being able to see things a little bit differently and being able to kind of create and make that sort of vision come to life. That's a really fulfilling part of owning a business, of being an entrepreneur. So now I couldn't be happier with where we are now. I mean, there's always more to do, right? And there's always a lot more things to do and more ways to go. And and we're continually working on new ideas and new ways to reach our referring veterinarians, new ways to support them. And, you know, we kind of have some things going on right now, actually. Some strategies that we're probably hopefully I mean, it's a little difficult right now, but hopefully going to roll some brand new like really unconventional and never tried ways to communicate with our referring veterinary population. Hopefully this summer we're going to start to roll some of those things up. So more to come. Laura, maybe we'll do another podcast. When we start to do that? So how about that?
Laura: That sounds great. Because I'm sure that will peak a lot of interest, particularly me. Well, thank you, Stephanie. This has been wonderful. I know so many veterinarians and specialists will just love to hear about your hospital, your career and your vision. I mean, it seems to me you have a tremendous vision starting all the way back to when you were in your first position to seeing that oncology needed a unique special place.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Of course.
Laura: That's a very, that was a very visionary move. And it sounds like you're still at it.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Yeah, yeah. We're still at it. So, you know. Well good, well thank you.
Laura: Sure. Thank you, thank you for joining me today.
Dr Stephanie Correa: Of course, my pleasure.
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