Future-Proofing Effingham’s Healthcare
Future-Proofing Effingham’s Healthcare
Story by Jenny Lynn Anderson
While Effingham Health System has seen tremendous growth since President and CEO Dr. Fran Witt joined the organization in 2016, listening to her speak makes it evident that her focus is on the future of this community and the healthcare system.
In 2021 Witt was named one of the 50 Most Influential Clinical Executives in the country by Modern Healthcare magazine, for her leadership in embracing the future of healthcare for rural communities. With the announcement of the new Hyundai automobile plant being built just a few miles beyond the county line, Effingham Health System is already planning expansion to handle the influx of new residents and support businesses.
“Healthcare is not just a service to a community; it is a critical part of the infrastructure,” she explains.
To illustrate the exponential growth Effingham Health System has already achieved, she shares a few facts.
• Patients treated in the ER grew from 11,000 in 2011 to over 19,000 in 2021.
• The surgery center performs 2,000 surgeries annually and the da Vinci robotic surgery technology, introduced in 2018, has already been used for more than 1,000 surgeries.
• The Effingham Family Medicine team cares for 22,000 patients and maintains a 97% patient satisfaction rate.
• Effingham Health System has also established locally based partnerships with respected specialists in cancer care, orthopaedics, and cardiology.
Witt, whose credentials include a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice), MBA, RN, and LNHA (Licensed Nursing Home Administrator), explains the secret to their success: “Today our health system is steeped in evidence-based medicine. It’s our culture, our philosophy, and what we strive for every day. We no longer benchmark ourselves against other smaller hospitals. We benchmark ourselves against larger hospitals, and that’s why we will continue to be recognized nationally for patient care and innovation.”
A Critical Resource During the Pandemic
As the country emerges from the COVID-19 Pandemic, Dr. Witt says she is confident of how critical Effingham Health System was to this community during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Effingham Health System’s Emergency Room treated 1,600 diagnosed COVID patients. More than 375 were hospitalized locally, 65 were transferred to other facilities, and more than 30,000 COVID-19 tests were administered, most of them not reimbursed.
Responding to the pandemic cost Effingham Health System $780,000 a month for two years.
Witt shares her most significant insight from the pandemic response, saying, “Going forward, it is crystal clear that we are an essential provider for this community.”
Witt says one positive that comes from the pandemic response is that, like other hospitals across the country, it led them to re-engineer the systems, technology, and protocols on which they rely. “We’re emerging a much stronger healthcare system,” she says as she turns the conversation to the future.
Looking to the Future
Today, Witt and her team are focusing on strategically aligning Effingham Health System’s growth with the needs of this community. She explains that when Effingham Health System adds or grows a service, it is because they have identified a real need. They rely heavily on the Community Needs Assessment Survey conducted with Georgia Southern University.
A Focus on Pediatrics
Effingham Health System is making pediatrics a significant priority to better serve the growing population of young families in the area. Witt anticipates the need for these services in Effingham will continue to outpace other local regions, given that Effingham County’s public school system is one of the best in the area and will continue to attract families.
Effingham Pediatrics, led by Dr. Bailey Alford, a board-certified pediatrician and Effingham native, has grown to three providers since opening in 2017. The pediatrics providers also staff the TELEMED program, launched in 2017, that currently offers telemedicine onsite, through the school nurse’s office, for all local public elementary and middle school students.
Preparations are underway to move the pediatrics practice into the former Effingham County Chamber building, where there will be room for further growth. Realizing that many local children require specialty care, Witt says the new facility will also help attract visiting pediatric specialists. A dedicated environment for children will improve the experience for young patients and their families.
Partnerships for Growth
One of the successful models Witt has developed for growing healthcare services in rural areas is partnering with thriving practices in larger communities. Effingham Health System has used this model to establish partnerships with Summit Cancer Care, Chatham Orthopaedics, and My Heart Doctor.
“With the support of our County Commissioners, we are focusing on strengthening these community provider relationships over the next two to three years. This will address current needs for specialty care but will also prepare Effingham Health System to handle the growth anticipated as the Hyundai plant goes online.”
At the same time, Witt focuses on the “front door”—the Emergency Room. The ER, staffed by board-certified emergency medicine specialists, is solid, having earned new levels of recognition and patient safety awards from the state of Georgia and the American Heart Association this past year.
Now, leadership is focused on being recognized as the best Level IV Trauma Center in the region. To accommodate growth in the ER and county-wide needs, the hospital has implemented a new hospitalist program, ensuring round-the-clock hospitalist care for all inpatients.
The growth of industry also impacts another area of the health system. Effingham Occupational Medicine provides workforce healthcare and specific industry testing that will grow along with that workforce. Effingham Health System works with local industries, including Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems America, and will look to expand that specialty practice over the next few years.
The Future of Communication
As Effingham Health System grows, so does the need for communications. A three-year digital transformation will bring the entire healthcare system under a single digital communication and electronic medical record program called Cerner. This state-of-the-art platform will not only allow providers within their system to communicate. It will also facilitate communications between Effingham Health System providers and a patient’s outside specialists or general practitioner.
So, how does a rural healthcare system achieve so much so quickly? Witt says it takes a lot of hard work by the entire staff, staying on top of industry best practices and finding (and keeping) skilled people who are open to change.
Witt’s motto internally is "Be the change. Lead the change. See the change." Dr. Fran Witt has the skill set to translate her vision to a level of understanding among her staff, inspiring them to embrace excellence across the board.