Healthy competition can be a good thing, but it also can distract from the main goal. That was the case for the leaders of Baptist Healthcare System of South Carolina and Richland Memorial Hospital, who – after decades of rivalry – in 1996 said enough was enough. Their state faced major health challenges, such as ranking seventh-highest in the nation in the percentage of adults with diabetes and its staggering rate of 15 teenagers giving birth per day.

“We sat down together and decided that instead of spending all this time competing with each other, we should spend more time, money and effort to improve the health of the community,” says Charles Beaman, Jr., president and CEO at Palmetto Health, a 1,138-bed system in Columbia, S.C.

The two organizations merged to form Palmetto Health in 1998 and committed to tithe 10% of its bottom line to directly fund programs and services for indigent, uninsured and underserved people in its community. Nearly 17 years later, Palmetto Health has invested almost $54 million back into the community, through programs dedicated to cancer prevention, diabetes prevention and management, teen pregnancy prevention, maternal and child health, dental health, vision services and helping seniors access care, among others.

In recognition of its wide-ranging programs, Palmetto Health will receive the 2014 Foster G. McGaw Prize for Excellence in Community Service at the AHA's Annual Membership Meeting May 5 in Washington, D.C. The Baxter International Foundation, the AHA and the AHA-affiliated Health Research & Educational Trust sponsor the award.

FMG photo

As part of Palmetto Health Diabetes Prevention Program, program participant Rhonda Marshall exercises to delay a possible onset of type 2 diabetes.

Palmetto Health reached out to community members to hear their concerns, looked for gaps in services, analyzed its emergency department data and identified community partners that could help achieve their goals.

“We had to decide whether we wanted to do a rifle or shotgun approach, and we went with shotgun,” says Vince Ford, the system’s chief community health services officer. “If we could use someone else’s resources through our partnerships, we could create synergy and have more resources than if we went at it individually.”

Once Palmetto Health identified its core concerns, the team looked for the natural partners. For example, Ford says to tackle the community’s teen pregnancy problem, Palmetto Health forged relationships with the community’s places of worship, schools and neighborhood associations. And, through its research, Palmetto Health found that men in the community were more willing to get a prostrate exam if the health system came to them in their places of worship.

He says the biggest challenge early on was establishing that trust with community members.

“‘You’re the hospital and now you want to come in the community and do what? How’s the data going to be used? How much will it cost? Who’s going to be impacted?’ We heard all those things,” Ford says. “But over time and through our partnerships, we were able to build trust.”

Palmetto Health stays on top of its programs’ success by setting annual goals and metrics for each area and analyzing monthly status reports to gauge how well each program is performing and make needed adjustments.

It’s seeing results. In the past three years, 64% of the adults enrolled in the “Changing Lifestyles” diabetes management program have shown measureable improvements in major health indicators. And in 2013, the infant mortality rate was 1.2 per 1,000 live births for participants of its Palmetto Healthy Start program, which provides education and support to young moms, compared with 8.4 per 1,000 live births for non-participants.

Mac Bennett, president and CEO of the United Way of Midlands, has teamed with Palmetto Health on a number of its community health initiatives, including providing vision, dental and medical screenings to nearly 4,000 community members. He says that Palmetto Health is committed to collaboration, avoiding duplicative services and trying to get the best return on investment for its health care programs.

“We’re doing things that are exceptions and not the rules for getting health care service delivery into the community,” Bennett says. “Palmetto Health took the initiative on that and I have to give them the credit for getting these things done.”

Ford says that it’s not about skill, it’s about will. He says hospitals need to ask themselves, “Are we willing to commit to helping the most vulnerable people in the community, regardless of the circumstance?”

As for other systems looking to implement similar programs, Beaman says they need to have commitment starting at the top and they need to think long-term.

“Our board of directors was committed from day one,” he says. “You need that level of commitment, you need to be bold and you need to make sure what you’re doing is sustainable.”

April 3 is the deadline to apply for the 2015 Foster G. McGaw Prize. Learn more by visiting

PH Education

Community advocate Teresa Robinson helps a patient with a free health screening at Women at Heart, an annual Palmetto Health event focused on providing heart health education to women.