Less than two years into his tenure as president and CEO of Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Russell Baxley is making an impact in the community – and earning recognition in return.
Last month, the 35-year-old hospital executive was honored with the 2018 Civitas Award for Outstanding Lowcountry Young Professional at the annual awards gala hosted by the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“The award recognizes a young professional who exemplifies strong professional capabilities, leadership qualities, service to the community, and a respected character,” said Chamber President and CEO Blakely Williams. “With all that Russell has accomplished since he joined the hospital in the fall of 2016, he was a natural choice for the award.”
From the start, Baxley impressed Beaufort Memorial’s board of trustees with his grasp of today’s complex health care system, his vision for the future, and his integrity. The youngest of seven finalists considered for the top post, he took the helm well-prepared and ready to meet the challenges of running a 197-bed not-for-profit hospital with a $220 million operating budget and more than 1,500 employees and physicians.
“Russell developed a very ambitious, highly-detailed strategic plan when he came to the hospital,” said board of trustees member Terry Murray, who chaired the board at the time. “He and his team are accomplishing everything we set out to do.”
After assessing the needs of the growing population in Beaufort County, Baxley and his team set about improving and expanding access to health care services with several new initiatives.
Among them is BMH Care Anywhere, an online 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service offering virtual provider visits; extended hours for the hospital’s primary care practices; online self-scheduling service for emergency department visits; and expanded use of telemedicine.
Last year, Baxley spearheaded a joint venture with MUSC Health and Alliance Oncology to relocate and expand the Keyserling Cancer Center to Beaufort Medical Plaza. And the hospital’s latest and most ambitious project is the creation of a micro hospital in Okatie Crossing. Once again, Beaufort Memorial has partnered with MUSC to build the acute care facility – the first of its kind South Carolina – adjacent to the hospital’s planned 70,000-square-foot medical campus at U.S. 278 and S.C. 170.
A graduate of Clemson University with a B.S. in microbiology, Baxley earned his master’s in health care administration from the University of South Carolina and spent the next six years in hospital positions that ranged from director of development to assistant chief financial officer to chief operating officer.
Before joining BMH, he served as CEO of a 213-bed private hospital in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was 31 when he landed the job, making him the youngest CEO in a health system of 160 hospitals.
Baxley attributes growing up on his family’s farm in Johnsonville, South Carolina, to helping him develop a strong work ethic and drive to achieve – both on and off the job. He’s raced in several half marathons and recently competed with a team of Beaufort Memorial colleagues in the Palmetto 200, an overnight relay covering 200 miles from the Columbia area to just outside of Charleston.
And he remains a devoted Clemson fan, driving to the Upstate several weekends each fall with his wife, Stephanie, to watch his beloved Tigers tear up the turf in Death Valley.
“Technically, I could pull for both Clemson and USC,” he said. “But both my parents graduated from Clemson. I was born and raised under the orange and purple.”
It wasn’t long after he arrived in Beaufort that his abilities were put to the test. He was just three weeks on the job when Hurricane Matthew took aim at the Carolina coast.
“With the storm bearing down on us, we made the decision to shut down the hospital,” Baxley recalled. “We immediately started coordinating to move 70 patients to hospitals all over South Carolina.”
As the hurricane passed offshore, Baxley was hunkered down in the hospital with an emergency crew of doctors, nurses, housekeepers, cooks and technicians, building camaraderie and earning the respect of his staff.
While BMH escaped major damage from the storm, bigger troubles lay ahead. Like so many other community-owned hospitals, Beaufort Memorial was facing tough financial times, exacerbated by the costs – and losses – incurred because of the hurricane.
Determined to remain independent, the board worked with Baxley and the management team to move the hospital to more solid financial ground and avoid having to sell out to a larger, for-profit hospital system.
“Over the last year and a half, we were able to successfully improve the hospital’s finances, producing strong margins that have allowed us to re-invest in our facilities with a number of needed renovations and upgrades,” Baxley said. “And we did it the right way—looking at ways to cut costs through renegotiation of contracts with vendors and suppliers, for example—and were able to avoid strategies such as layoffs and service line closures, as so many other community hospitals look to do.”
Despite the tight times, the hospital was able to start new service lines such as a direct-to-employer initiative called “Well at Work” and to advance its community outreach mission by creating a sickle cell anemia clinic.
Through it all, the BMH team maintained – and even improved – patient outcomes, receiving awards that include four consecutive “A” scores from Hospital Safety Grades, Medicare 4-star ratings and several Joint Commission Gold Seal of Approval certifications.
“Every one of us at Beaufort Memorial—from housekeepers to food servers to the nurses, doctors and technicians on our medical team—is committed to maintaining the highest quality of care for our patients,’ said Baxley. “If you’re a patient here, you’ll see and feel that commitment at work in everything we do.”