The opening of the Evara Health Institute will mark an important step forward for health care in Tampa Bay

Newly graduated, searching for her first job out of university, Elodie Dorso only knew she wanted to work in the medical industry. Although becoming a nurse or physician was “not in her genes,” Dorso’s early life experiences profoundly impacted the way she saw the world, guiding her toward the non-profit health care space. Now the chief executive officer and president of Evara Health (formerly Community Health Centers of Pinellas), Dorso admits, “I never thought I’d stay with the same company for 25 years. But I’m so glad I did.”

Elodie Dorso

While still in her teens, Dorso lost both her parents. First, her mother to breast cancer, when she was 18, and then her father a year later from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“What I remember the most about this time is the people I encountered,” says Dorso. “The nurses or administrators that took care of my parents, who really took care of me when my family entered hospice, the way certain caregivers and staff made my family or me feel, the importance and impact of those personal interactions.”

Dorso knew she wanted to find a company where she could make a difference to others during these pivotal moments of life.

A St. Petersburg native and graduate of Seminole High School, Dorso studied business at the University of South Florida, later receiving her MBA from Saint Leo University. She was interested in how to administer good health care, and the people supporting the caregivers, behind the scenes.

As Dorso explains, “My parents’ medical issues had been going on for six or seven years, so as an adolescent teenager, I had to deal with issues that nobody should have to deal with at that age. My mother was insured but my father was not. Their pathways took markedly different routes. The experiences taught me a lot about the challenges of our health care system.”

As a young graduate in the late ‘90s, Evara Health – then Community Health Centers – appealed to her, with their founding principles of health care for all. Their first health center opened in 1985 as a continuation of the vision of Dr. Johnnie Ruth Clarke. Clarke was a Florida civil rights activist and a pioneer in the fight against sickle cell anemia. Her activism established modern medical services for the underserved African American residents of St. Petersburg. For Dorso, the ideology of Community Health Centers was a match.

When Dorso started as director of human resources, it wasn’t only the name that was different. Twenty-five years ago, Dorso joined a still fledgling company with only two or three locations and 50 employees. As Dorso remembers, “the main office was in a cottage across the street from Lakeview Presbyterian Church, where one of our centers was in the basement.”

Now boasting 16 centers across Pinellas and serving over 60,000 patients through 200,000 yearly visits across Pinellas County, Evara Health covers all the modalities of primary care: family medicine, pediatrics, women’s health services, including OB and GYN, dentistry, behavioral health, nutrition, podiatry and chiropractic services. Under Dorso’s leadership, Evara Health has grown to become one of the largest FQHC in the state of Florida and has been named in the top 20 federally qualified health care providers in the nation for quality of care, and in the top 5% for cost efficiency. About 75% of their patients are either on Medicaid or are uninsured.

More growth is on the horizon, as this year will see the opening of the Evara Health Institute, an innovative approach to whole-person care with a far-reaching community impact across the Bay area. Healthier communities contribute to economic stability, Dorso believes, and the new Institute will be a way to meld these two concerns. The Institute will be housed in a new, 20,000-square-foot campus facility, custom-designed to provide industry-current healthcare education and training for the Bay area community and future students.

The Institute boasts a spacious first floor, including space devoted to instruction and simulated hands-on practice. Two large classroom-simulation laboratory combo rooms dedicated to medical instruction, one large classroom-simulation combo room for dental instruction, a pharmacy technician classroom-laboratory space and a behavioral health instructional classroom ensure all students have access to dedicated learning space.

“We all know that healthcare is not just about coming to see the doctor. There’s a whole web of spiritual, physical and emotional well-being around physical health, and one of the strands is financial health,” Dorso says. “If you’re not healthy, you can’t get a job, right? If you don’t have a job, you can’t go to the doctor. If you don’t have housing, you can’t feel physically secure. So, it’s all intertwined as a whole person-centered approach.”

By training future health care workers, the Institute contributes to both the physical and financial health of the Bay area. “Our goal is to not treat our patients as widgets,” Dorso adds. “We’re really about creating healthier communities. And we do that through one patient, one family, and then through one whole community at a time.”

Fundraising is currently underway at the Evara Health Foundation for the Institute, with the annual golf tournament and Giving Tuesday fundraisers at the end of the year. In addition to funding the Institute, the Foundation supports all the work in their clinics as well, focusing on four key areas for financial endowment: workforce development, technological advancement, programmatics and community outreach. As Dorso explains, “our Foundation makes sure we can upskill our workforce to provide better care to our patients. It keeps us current with technological advancements, making sure that our patients who are underserved or underinsured are able to use some of the newest technology like remote patient monitoring or telehealth opportunities. Our Foundation also offers funding for programmatics and community outreach, like working with our various patient programs.”

Dorso highlights Evara Health’s unique food pharmacies as one successful program funded by the Foundation. Patients who are diabetic, hypertensive or suffering from other chronic diseases who require specialized nutrition can get a food prescription from Evara Health physicians to shop in one of three nutritionally sound food pharmacies, located in their three largest clinics across Pinellas, to find healthier food choices at affordable prices. “That’s really our role,” says Dorso, “to help our patients get healthier, and, in the long run, to create a healthier community.”

The opening of the Institute later this year will mark an important step forward for Evara Health, enhancing its ability to fulfill its mission of providing high-quality healthcare training that is both accessible and affordable.

 For Dorso, it’s come off a year of personal accolades and recognition, including being named one of the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s Women of the Year. “It’s really not about me,” says Dorso, despite her success obviously driven by the same clear ideals as that young graduate 25 years ago: “It’s about my team. I am blessed to have a great team who believes in our mission and believes in creating a healthier community. I’m just one person on a much larger team.”

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