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Health system CEO Carol Burrell rises from humble beginnings
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Carol Burrell, president and CEO of Northeast Georgia Health System, was chosen this month by Atlanta-based business publication Georgia Trend as the state’s Most Respected Business Leader.

Carol Burrell’s father, a career electrician at the General Motors plant in Doraville, wanted his daughter to get a trade for one simple reason.

“I’d be sure to have a job,” she said.

Her eyes on a four-year college degree, Burrell didn’t go that path. But she sure ended up with a job — a job-and-a-half, perhaps, overseeing some 8,000 people as part of the Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia Health System.

In her years with the system, including the past seven as CEO, she’s been responsible for construction of a new hospital, the acquisition of another, and expansion of programs and services.

“Any one of these things inside a career would be pretty monumental,” Burrell said during an interview earlier this month at her office.

Her efforts have earned her a couple of recognitions recently, including being given the Distinguished Citizen Award at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s May 18 annual meeting and gala. Earlier this month, business publication Georgia Trend named her the state’s Most Respected Business Leader.

“Carol has mastered the secret recipe to leadership success — surrounding yourself with a great team and building them up, never making it about you,” said Kit Dunlap, chamber CEO and president, at the chamber event.

As Dunlap spoke, Burrell shifted her eyes downward.

“I’m not one of those folks who like to be in the limelight, necessarily, but it comes with the territory,” she said afterward. “That’s where you have good people and you count on who you’ve got.”

Burrell, 60, had humble beginnings in Carl, a Barrow County town of 269 residents (“a suburb of Winder,” she jokingly says). It was a simple lifestyle, one that included her mother making all the clothes for her and her two younger sisters.

With her grandmother living next door, Burrell said she “had a great opportunity to grow up with friends all through school.”

She recalled her father’s “very strong work ethic” and his serving on the local hospital board.

“I loved science and when I was a (high school) senior, decided to go into medical technology in the laboratory field,” Burrell said.

Plus, she added, she would be the first in her family to earn a four-year degree.

Burrell, who is married and has two grown children, completed her undergraduate degree at Georgia Southern College and Emory University Hospital.

She started her career as a medical technologist in the late 1970s, before returning to school to complete her master’s degree in health care administration at Central Michigan University.

Burrell served as a vice president at St. Vincent’s Health System in Jacksonville, Fla., before being recruited to the health system in 1999 to work with the primary care network. She was promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer in 2004.

She was named Northeast Georgia Health System’s CEO in June 2011.

One of the biggest highlights of her tenure has been the opening of 100-bed Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton in April 2015.

Other achievements include Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville receiving a trauma care designation from the state that increases the number of seriously injured patients who can be treated at the hospital.

In December, officials said the health system had reached an agreement to acquire Barrow Regional Medical Center in Winder.

A study released last month by the Georgia Hospital Association estimates NGHS’ economic impact on the state and local economy at more than $1.5 billion.

“During ... challenging times in our field, (Burrell) has led her hometown health care system to unprecedented success and recognition,” Georgia Hospital Association President Earl Rogers said.

Projects ahead don’t involve so much brick and mortar as they do technology, including a digital medical records-sharing system Burrell hopes to roll out in October.

“It will be the central nervous system of our hospital,” she said. “Patients will only have to register once with the system and ... will be able to access medical records in real time.”

The initiative “gives us the foundation for providing care into the future.”

“From my perspective, it’s probably it’s as big (an undertaking), if not bigger, than building Braselton,” Burrell said.

Her busy world also involves keeping track of the politics of health care. It took off with the Affordable Care Act passed during President Barack Obama’s administration and continues today with a proposed replacement under President Donald Trump.

“We don’t know what the rules are going to be, but if we’re improving our quality and lowering our costs and having a seamless experience as much as possible for the patients, we will be as well positioned as anybody can be,” Burrell said.

Still, there has been much to watch coming out of Washington — and some of it, Burrell said, is well worth watching.

For example, under ACA was a provision for bundled payments, which means the hospital gets paid for an “episode of care,” such as a hip replacement.

“We’re responsible for (a patient’s) care, no matter what happens,” Burrell said. “If there’s a bad outcome, heaven forbid, it comes back to us because we’ll get paid a set amount.”

Such policy “has really gotten us to the table, as a hospital, with the physicians to understand what are the things we can do to assure we’ve got the best outcomes at the lowest costs,” she said.

Burrell paused for a moment, then added, “You know, that’s what we should be striving for. Models in the past have not allowed the incentives to be aligned between hospitals and physicians.

“A lot of those things, candidly, are putting us together, and the patients will be the benefactors.”

Also, looking ahead, Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville is developing a residency program for medical school graduates — an effort that would help recruit and retain homegrown talent, fill shortages of positions and improve overall quality of care and patient outcomes.

The program’s first medical residents are set to start at NGMC in 2019, and hospital officials expect upward of 170 residents across six different specialties to enroll by 2024, making it one of the largest programs in the state.

It’s just another major initiative, but something Burrell welcomes.

“If you’re not growing, you’re losing,” she said.

Still, she confessed, “there are moments when I’m wondering, ‘Am I the one who should be doing this?

Overwhelming at times, the job has been great — and rewarding.

“Every step has been like a steppingstone,” Burrell said. “Great people have mentored me along the way. I think I’m where I need to be and I’m making a difference, along with a lot of other people.”

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