WINNSBORO — It doesn’t take long to recognize that Michael Williams, retiring CEO of Fairfield Memorial Hospital, is not your typical chief executive officer.
Williams’ long road to administration began 32 years ago as a respiratory therapist. After successfully advancing to head of respiratory services in just two years, he propelled through other division leadership positions, from radiology to rehab, before he finally landed in the CEO’s seat eight years ago.
“I never thought I was going to be CEO,” he said. “I never would have had the job if I wasn’t hired from within. CEOs don’t change positions for a long time.”
Williams attributes much of his success not only to hard work, but his love for his community and rural health care.
“I love Fairfield County, but rural health care has got to change,” he said.
And change has come under Williams’ leadership. When he ascended to CEO in 2008, he became the first African-American hospital CEO in South Carolina.
Like many industry C-suites and boardrooms, minority representation is still a work in progress for hospitals.
According to 2012 data from the Institute for Diversity in Health Management, just 14 percent of hospital C-suite positions were occupied by minorities, and even more recent data from the American Hospital Association’s National Healthcare Governance Study reports an estimated 47 percent of nonprofit hospital governing boards had no racial or ethnic minorities in 2013.
But Williams never considered that a stumbling block.
“You only think about it a second and it goes away,” he said. “You see other blacks in the room, but they’re not CEO. And you see the same thing at national meetings. I don’t dwell on it because I know we’ve got to move on.”
In his eight years as CEO, Williams moved quickly to refocus the way the hospital operated to maximize efficiency. He used technology to move to virtual radiology and expand telemedicine services including tele-psych and tele-stroke.
He developed an innovative “hospitalist hybrid” program in which the emergency room physician also serves as the hospitalist, providing care and managing the patient experience at the same time.
He knew he had to do less with more, and believes federally qualified health centers and rural health centers are a key ingredient to improving health in rural areas.
Williams improved access to care in western Fairfield County by helping the hospital establish a health center in Jenkinsville that provides health services to the area’s low-income, underserved population. And while he believes that access is key for population health, he understands that rural hospitals must change the way they operate to be sustainable.
And that means making tough decisions.
Tough decisions for Williams included eliminating breakfast services and no longer serving employees in the cafeteria. While hospitals in more affluent areas look to expand amenities, Williams recognized that hospital employees simply weren’t eating in the cafeteria, and the wasted food costs were significant.
He also revamped the hospital’s leave policy to save the hospital $1 million and contends that when it comes to rural health care, “the revenue days are over. It’s about managing expenses.”
And that’s his advice to rural hospitals looking to keep their doors open in a time when reimbursement is becoming leaner and health care is becoming more consumer-driven.
Williams knows that more appealing health care markets, like Columbia, are just a short drive away, and that rural hospitals should no longer try to compete with those markets, but focus on the services most needed in their communities.
“Evaluate your system,” he says. “And don’t let people tell you what you can’t do. Just go in and work.”
Williams’ last day with Fairfield Memorial Hospital was Sept. 1, and Board Chairman James McGraw indicated that the hospital plans to honor him by naming a wing of the facility after him.
The board has named Suzanne Doscher, former vice president of operations at Tidelands Health in Georgetown, as the new CEO. In his retirement, Williams looks to continue his interests in renewable energy, commercial development, and health care consulting.