Fran Baker-Witt : Leader and Visionary for Effingham Health System

story by Julie Hales     photos by Tonya Perry

Some people possess leadership skills because they learned how to become a leader.  Some possess these skills because of the life paths they have chosen and the walks they have taken along those paths. And, for others, it is just a natural trait, a part of who they are, from beginning to end.

     Fran Baker-Witt is one of those people, she was born to be a leader. It is who she is, it just comes natural to her. She doesn’t take a back seat. She takes the ‘bull by the horns’ and gets the job done. She was simply born to lead, and to lead with grace, poise and dignity.

     For the past year, Fran Baker-Witt has served as the CEO of Effingham Health System. She originally came to EHS as the new Transformation Officer, and soon was appointed as interim CEO, before being chosen to fill that position on a permanent basis.

     Baker-Witt came to Effingham Health System from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. She says, “I worked at Grady for 17 years in various leadership positions, including Patient Safety and Accreditation Officer and, most recently, as Executive Director of Women’s and Infants Services. Those varied roles, in the context of a public safety net academic institution, with unique challenges specific to clinical acuity and social issues, working with two schools of medicine, prepared me well for my role as CEO. Grady is a cutting-edge institution and I brought that spirit of innovation and energy with me to Effingham Health System. Nothing is stopping us as we recruit specialized practitioners, partners, and technology to transform this healthcare system to meet the population health needs of our patients and community.”

     And, she has certainly brought spirit and innovation to EHS. And, it has been contagious within the walls of this hospital. Adapting a motto early in her new role, Baker-Witt explains, “‘Be the change. See the change. Lead the change,’ has served our team well this past year and will continue to guide us into the future as we transform this health system. It has created momentum with outcomes like our program to put Telemedicine in the local schools. Our employee engagement has gone from 69% to 91%. Happy employees translate to a good patient experience!”

     Patient experience is a top priority at EHS. And that experience starts with the staff, from the receptionist when you walk in the door, to the triage nurse, to the ER physicians, to the Hospitalist, to the Therapists…the list goes on and on. If Baker-Witt could instill one characteristic into each staff member at EHS, it would be passion. “Passion is important. Change is not easy, and we are transforming our organizational culture. We need to support each other as we grow, understanding that we are all human and that change takes perseverance. Our industry is changing so fast, and we need to help each other as we adapt and excel in this new environment. Passion for our work ultimately translates to a better experience for our patients,” she states.

     Baker-Witt’s role as Transformation Officer to CEO has been a smooth transition, partly because the two roles are very similar. She explains, “The progression between the two roles was a solid fit, given that Transformation of our health system is our immediate objective. The focus on change and transformation remains.  The biggest difference is the scope of responsibility has increased dramatically.”

      There have been many changes at Effingham Health System over the last year. When asked of the changes made and accomplishments in her first year in her role as CEO, Baker-Witt tells us, “I asked that question of our employees recently and they said, ‘No more Silos,’ ‘Teamwork,’ ‘Better Communication,’ ‘Clear Direction, and ‘Trust. We have experienced a major transformation of the culture. Expectations changed as we hardwired behavior that exemplifies evidenced-based best practices. The staff rose to the challenge of regulatory issues. Everybody understands the vision and mission, and there are no more silos. Results followed with increased patient engagement. We set high goals and we are reaching them. All of those internal operational changes have improved the patient experience and patient outcomes. We’re adding important services based on the needs we hear from our community.”

     “I also think the change in perception we have experienced is really important. How people perceive Effingham Health System, our branding. The community has known we are an economic engine. But today, we are building trust and confidence for the level of care we provide close to home. They are seeing and experiencing the innovation we are bringing to this community,” she adds.

     Baker-Witt has been a master at keeping her pulse on everything happening on the entire campus of EHS. This is definitely one of her strengths. “Thankfully I can draw on my experience in varied healthcare leadership roles throughout my career. I also find that the patience and multi-tasking I learned as a mother help me to be a better leader, while my spirituality keeps me focused,” she shares.

     Yes, spirituality plays a predominant role her life. When facing adversity in her new role, she relies on this part of her being.  Her faith translates to sound advice for her staff. “Facing adversity is never easy. Embrace the situation. Try to understand the purpose. Always question ‘why’? To overcome adversity, we need self-reflection; to know our strengths and weaknesses. When things happen, they have meaning and purpose. Don’t just see them as bad or be indifferent. Try to find the message. Be willing to stretch yourself and to critique yourself. Growth is hard. But the outcome is worth it.”

     There is no doubt that Fran Baker-Witt has used her own advice.

     Charities are dear to the heart of Baker-Witt. She has been involved in many charities since coming to Effingham, like United Way, March of Dimes and others. This year, she has been chosen to Co-Chair the Coastal Empire’s ‘March For Babies,’ with Tina Tyus-Shaw of WSAV in Savannah. When asked about this opportunity, Baker-Witt replied, “Now you’ve hit on one of my passions! I am honored to co-chair the March for Babies with Tina Tyus-Shaw this year. It is a great chance for Effingham to have a presence in a Greater Savannah event. As a nurse, I want to help reduce infant and maternal mortality rates in Georgia. Our state currently rates a “D” on March of Dimes’ Report Card. That includes the fact that Georgia has the 43rdhighest infant mortality, and 47th highest maternal mortality, in the nation. I particularly want to encourage prenatal care for African-American women, who have a 4X increased risk of premature birth than any other ethnicity. I experienced a miscarriage myself, even with good prenatal care, so this is near and dear to me personally. I understand on a personal level just how important March of Dimes’ mission—to care for mothers and babies—is to our community.”

      Baker-Witt’s professional journey began as a RN. She has always liked helping people. She received her BSN from Loyola University Chicago and then began nursing at Mercy Hospital, where she specialized in women’s services and neonatal care.

     For Baker-Witt, it wasn’t enough for her to take care of patients at the bedside.  She wanted to have more of an impact in the healthcare process. So, after two short years of nursing, she decided to go back to school and earn her Master of Business Administration degree.

     “While I was pursuing my MBA, I accepted my first nursing leadership healthcare management position as a director of nursing for a long-term care facility.  So, from 1988 to now, I have been in healthcare leadership roles,” she states.

     Education is a key component.  And, she continues to reach for the stars.  Last year, when accepting this position, she was in the process of obtaining her Doctor of Nursing Practice. She proudly states, “I expect to advance to Doctoral Candidate in June of this year. Given the demands of my CEO role, I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue to achieve academic excellence. I attribute that to my faith. Prayer and time management (she says with a smile) helps put everything into perspective and gives me strength when I need it most.”

    There have been some major changes and accomplishments made under the leadership of Fran Baker-Witt this past year. A new Cancer Care Center was opened in Spring of 2017, providing cancer treatment close to home. This fall, Effingham Health System launched a highly successful Telemedicine pilot program in local schools and the healthcare system added the very first, much needed, pediatrician to the staff.

     They have also expanded the hospitalist program, physicians who specialize in care for people in the hospital and have expanded that model to include advanced practitioners. This allows EHS to deliver optimal care and helps assure the best possible health outcome for every patient.

      “One of the priorities I am very proud of from this past year is that we continue to improve the level of care we provide through our providers, including physicians and advanced practitioners (nurse practitioners and physician assistants). Our providers have tremendous expertise, experience and commitment. They are the connection between our health system and the people we serve,” states Baker-Witt. Effingham Health’s provider practices have excelled, receiving a 96.7% patient satisfaction rating.

     And what CEO, with the vision of Baker-Witt, would not be thinking about the future? The answer would be none. She is always thinking of the future and what changes we will see in the upcoming year. She tells us, “Continued growth, expansion of specialty programs and more outreach programs that move healthcare to patients in our community are on the agenda.”

     If Fran Baker-Witt says it, then you should expect it.  She is the leader and visionary of our community hospital. Her vision will continue to help Effingham residents have quality healthcare here in our community, without having to drive to Savannah and surrounding areas. With tireless dedication like hers, the future of Effingham Health System is very bright.

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