100 years in the making, Baptist Health focused on current crisis before celebration

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 460 views 

One hundred years of being in business is worthy of celebration, but in lieu of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baptist Health CEO Troy Wells says it’s prudent to wait until safer conditions can support a public salute.

Baptist Health, the state’s largest healthcare system, incorporated on Feb. 16, 1921 placing the 100th anniversary in the middle of last week’s snowstorm and on the verge of the one-year benchmark of the coronavirus pandemic that has daunted the state.

“We did make a conscious decision not to do the huge celebration right now in the midst of the pandemic. We wanted to wait, let that subside. Hopefully, things will normalize throughout the year, but it will be a year-long celebration, so there’ll be a lot more to come,” Wells said in a Talk Business & Politics interview.

The pandemic has been front-and-center for nearly a year. Baptist Health, like every other healthcare organization in the state, has had to adapt and adjust its business model to provide critical services to the public while protecting its workers from the deadly virus. With vaccines becoming more widespread, Wells has hope that COVID-19 can be conquered.

“If there’s one message I’d have for the public, it’s be ready when it’s your turn to get to get the COVID-19 vaccine. This is what can take us out of this. And without the vaccine and without uptick of the vaccine, there’s a possibility of another surge like we saw back in the winter,” he said.

While he claims more vaccines would help expedite success, he was complimentary of Arkansas’ overall effort.

“We’re not getting as much vaccine into the state as we would like, of course. But the healthcare providers, the pharmacists across the state are doing everything they can to get every vaccine given in the week they receive it, and so far Arkansas has done a pretty good job,” Wells said.

“I would say that the way we’ve coordinated this statewide – both back during the height of the pandemic when it came to bed management, patient management, and now with vaccine distribution – we have taken a very centralized approach to managing the pandemic,” he said. “That’s not been easy at times, but I would say that I talk to a lot of other leaders in other states who don’t have a centralized approach, and it’s been really chaotic and there are a lot of unhappy folks. So, I think that our state has done a really good job of staying together and working through these challenges together.”

Wells said there have been a number of turning points in Baptist’s 100-year history.

The hospital was incorporated in Pulaski County on Feb. 16, 1921 although it started services the year before. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention acquired property in downtown Little Rock in the fall of 1920, and part of that property had the Little Rock Sanitarium on it, Wells said. The facility had the capability of serving 75 patients.

Today, Baptist Health’s footprint stretches from Fort Smith to central Arkansas and covers swaths of north central and south Arkansas, too. The health system has 11 hospitals, hundreds of physician clinics, and scores of therapy centers.

Beyond the initial start in the 1920’s, Wells said the 1960’s and 1970’s were pivotal periods in Baptist Health’s growth.

“The ’60s were an interesting period because that’s when the [Baptist] convention separated from the hospital and we became a private 501 organization. That was really important in our history when that occurred, and it didn’t happen overnight. It took many years of debate and conversation in order for that to occur,” he said.

“In 1974, when the hospital campus here in Little Rock was rebuilt and opened was probably one of the most significant parts of our history, given the location. Back then, you had to take a gravel road to get to the hospital campus. A lot of people thought that we were crazy, but we had some really smart people in the organization back then that anticipated and had a sense of where Little Rock and the interstate system was going to evolve and how important it would be to have a major medical center right at the intersection of what’s now I-630 and I-430. Of course, that really has played an important part of creating easy access for Arkansans to get to the state’s largest hospital,” Wells said.

Other milestones include rebuilding 20 years ago the North Little Rock Spring Hill campus, which is at another major nexus of I-40 and Highway 167; the system’s Conway campus, which opened five years ago; and the 2018 acquisition of Sparks Health System facilities in Fort Smith and Van Buren.

“Anytime you take that large of an organization and try to merge it into another large organization, you’re going to have challenges and things you don’t foresee and anticipate. But we’ve worked through that with their team out west and our team here in central Arkansas, and they’ve done a great job,” Wells said. “They have meshed well with the rest of the health system. It’s just been a wonderful transition, a great group of people, and we’re so excited to have been able to extend our footprint into western Arkansas.”

Wells says there are not aggressive plans for additional acquisitions at this time, but the door is always open to it.

“I think that we’re very comfortable being a regional health system. I think we’re a good size. We cover a good geography. The west addition really was a good fit for us, but we never say ‘never.’ We’re not aggressively looking to expand necessarily,” he said.

You can watch Wells’ full interview in the video below.