Leadership in Action > Growth through culture, talent and innovation

How a strategic combination greatly expanded Atrium Health’s research capabilities while holding tightly to its health care mission.

Atrium Health’s 2020 combination with Wake Forest Baptist Health brought together clinical expertise, research and innovation to serve patients at 40 hospitals and 1,400 locations in the Southeastern United States. The combined organization cares for one patient every other second. In one day, Atrium Health delivers 70 babies and treats 3,000 emergency room patients and 2,000 telehealth patients. It does this while also operating a school of medicine recognized nationally for its education programs and research.

Atrium Health President and CEO Eugene A. Woods pursued an integration with Wake Forest Health out of a conviction that providing better care for more people demands continuous growth in quality and scale. Combining these two entities, Woods believed, could help deliver that growth while making the new organization more resilient. He knew that for the combination to realize its potential, the organization would need to cultivate its talent and culture, while embracing digital innovation at every step. “It’s not just about getting bigger,” he says. “It’s about getting better, and it’s about getting differently better.”

Woods consistently follows two broad growth strategies. The first doubles down in core markets, improving care for the communities Atrium Health already serves. The second involves adding new capabilities, geographic markets and talent. Crucially, both strategies reinforce Atrium Health’s mission.

Arda Ural, EY Americas industry markets leader for health sciences and wellness, says adherence to mission is key to maintaining any organization’s culture through a merger. “Associates of the combined entity must have no confusion as to why they are waking up in the morning,” Ural says. “Especially today, people are just as concerned about mission as profit. If you don’t organize the culture of the new entity around mission, people will get distracted.”

It’s not just about getting bigger. It’s about getting better, and it’s about getting differently better.

Marcelo Bartholo, EY Americas deputy vice chair for consulting, considers culture fit the most important element of an M&A transaction. “When you can get companies together that are like-minded from a culture standpoint, the process becomes a lot easier and much more straightforward,” he says. That cultural cohesion is also essential to resilient growth.


Another essential is innovation. “Innovation is obviously a key driver of growth,” Ural says, “but particularly in health and life sciences, where research and development need to replace expiring patents. Sometimes innovation comes in house, but often it doesn’t—so mergers and acquisitions are the lifeblood of the industry.”


Yet innovation alone doesn’t produce resilient growth. Breakthroughs must be applied. Hence the combination, which brings together Atrium Health’s renowned patient care and Wake Forest Baptist Health’s research acumen. “We want to be the fastest in the country at getting ideas from the research bench to the bedside,” Woods says. “Wake Forest’s expertise in research and innovation makes that possible.”


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how remarkably innovative the health care industry can be, especially around services such as telehealth. Bartholo believes that’s giving the industry momentum as we enter the post-pandemic world. “We’re in a position to bring together the benefits of what we’ve learned over the last 18 months and inject that with the things that we cannot do in a remote environment,” he says.


That momentum may be further bolstered by “the ample liquidity we are seeing to invest in health care and biopharma companies,” Ural says. “That’s a good sign for the future of the industry.”


Woods believes that Atrium Health is in position to leverage digital technology to produce better health outcomes for more patients. This will help fulfill the organization’s mission and support the resilience of its growth. “In my mind, the only sustainable competency that our organization has is how fast we can learn,” says Woods. “If you learn faster than others, you are on a journey to reinvention. That is important, because we can’t do health care the way that we’ve done it in the past. Our foundation as a learning organization provides the fuel for our growth agenda.”

This is part of Leadership in Action — a master class series featuring prominent CEOs highlighting the decisive moment where bold decision-making has made a material impact on their company and career.

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