Joel Allison, the longtime Baylor Health Care System CEO who helped orchestrate a merger with Temple’s Scott & White, will step down as chief executive early next year.
Allison, 68, will resign as CEO on Feb. 1, 2017 and begin a new role as senior advisor to the chairman of the board to help in advocacy, philanthropy, and expanding medical education opportunities inside Baylor. Allison became chief in 2000, taking over for his mentor, Boone Powell Jr. He spent seven years before that as chief operating officer. He is the only CEO in the history of Baylor Scott & White Health, which became the state’s largest health system after the merger in 2013.
“I love what I do and I’m going to keep working. That’s not my style to just suddenly quit doing anything,” Allison said in an interview. “The board has reaffirmed our strategic direction of pursuing population health management, staying focused on our quality and our people and finding these new models of care as we seek to transform how healthcare is delivered.”
The board of trustees will conduct a national search to find his replacement. Allison says he will not be involved unless explicitly asked for advice. Should his replacement be named ahead of Feb. 1, Allison says he’ll move out of the CEO’s office in East Dallas and be on hand for anything the new leader needs. Allison plans to relocate to Waco and office in Temple. He and his wife Diane—now empty nesters with six grandchildren—met while attending Baylor University in Waco, where Allison remains a regent. And the advisory role will allow him to keep a toe in the water without being the system’s top-ranking executive.
“I really have enjoyed the work that I do in philanthropy, advocacy, medical education,” he said. “I agreed to be whatever assistance I could to the chairman and allow the transition to go a little bit further. It’s something that I think will be extremely positive and a nice transition for me.”
Allison says he’s discussed succession planning with the board for years. He would’ve likely stepped down sooner had it not been for the merger. In 2011, those discussions began following a chat at a breakfast event in Plano between Allison and Scott & White’s then-CEO Dr. Robert Pryor. Neither system overlapped geographically, and their cultures appeared to align. Allison brought the idea to merge to Baylor’s board and received the go-ahead to perform further due diligence. The merger was announced in December 2012 and closed in September 2013, after withstanding scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, the Texas Attorney General, and the Texas Department of Insurance.
The hospital system now reports total assets of more than $9 billion, 48 hospitals, more than 900 access points, 6,000 active physicians, and 40,000 employees. It also runs a health plan.
“A remarkable testament to Joel’s servant leadership is that he was able to build what today is the largest not-for-profit health care system in Texas, while remaining steadfastly dedicated to the organization’s mission to serve as a Christian ministry of healing,” read a statement from Jim Turner, the chairman of Baylor Scott & White Holdings Board of Trustees. “It is in large part because of his personal integrity, character and work ethic that this organization has grown through many strong partnerships, including one of the largest health care mergers in U.S. history, yet it never sacrificed its culture or values.”
Allison’s time with Baylor actually goes back to 1972. He and his wife, Diane, packed up their car and headed west from San Antonio so Allison could attend an administrative residency at Abilene’s Hendrick Medical Center. His superior was Boone Powell Jr., the future CEO of the Baylor Health Care System. Powell took Allison under his wing and hired him after he received his master’s in healthcare administration from Trinity University. He spent eight years in Abilene, leaving in 1981 after landing a CEO position at Missouri’s Methodist Medical Center. That preceded top jobs at hospitals in Amarillo and Corpus Christi. Powell, who led the Baylor Health Care System from 1980 to 2000, recruited Allison to Baylor in 1993.
“As we interviewed Joel, it was very clear to us that he carried the basic philosophical underpinnings that we thought important to running medical centers,” Powell said in a past interview. “Even though he was just starting his training, we knew that he had the philosophy and the orientation and, we soon learned also, the qualities that we liked.”
Throughout his career, Allison sought to engage physicians in a population health strategy that has proved prescient in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. In 1994, he saw to the creation of the HealthTexas Provider Network, the Baylor-affiliated physician group, which has grown to include more than 900 providers who practice at close to 250 care delivery sites throughout the region. He also helped launch the Baylor Scott & White Quality Alliance, an accountable care organization that now includes about 300,000 covered lives throughout North and Central Texas.
He’s been an aggressive supporter of partnerships and alignments. In recent years, Baylor has secured a cardiac contract with the world renowned Cleveland Clinic, which refers patients to Baylor that are located closer to Dallas than they are to Ohio. The system aligned with a consortium of rural hospitals that struggled to have the infrastructure to analyze patient data to embark on value-based strategies. Baylor Scott & White also recently paired with the Tenet Healthcare Corp., creating a joint venture between five hospitals located in northeast Dallas County.
In an interview in 2014 with D Magazine, Albert Black Jr., the former chairman of the Baylor board who helped recruit Allison to Dallas, praised him for his efforts in including physicians in decision making as well as aligning with them in the model of an integrated system.
“I like saying to Joel, ‘You know, Joel, the physician alignment strategy that you’re executing is critical, because our doctors are the team, they’re the people in this equation that we cannot trump,” said Black, the founder and CEO of Oak Cliff’s On Target Supplies & Logistics. “We have to have a relationship with our physicians that goes beyond good, and far beyond even great. It has to be that the physician alignment is good, great, and excellent in every way. Now, if you see no difference in those words, then I’ve just used three where I could have used two. Or one. But Joel is that superior manager.”
Under Allison, Baylor Scott & White launched an initiative to provide diabetes treatment for residents in an underserved area of South Dallas. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Allison oversaw the launch of Baylor’s Faith in Action Initiatives, which has sent aid and materials to victims overseas. The program also established free clinics and Christian ministries. The system has long been an innovator among its executive suite, as well. In the late 90s, Baylor was among the first healthcare systems in Texas to hire a chief quality officer. And last week, Allison said Baylor Scott & White named a chief digital officer to improve the system’s online portal for patient information.
The health system has won recognition for its employee wellness program, Thrive, and was the first large employer in North Texas to refuse to hire employees who smoked. Allison has a reputation of recognizing his employees over himself. And so every accomplishment that he reflected upon in an interview Tuesday—HealthTexas, the Quality Alliance, the merger, the wellness initiatives—he credited his team.
“The greatest thing I have had personally is meeting some of the finest men and women I have ever known who come with a sense of calling, who come and care about their patients and care about each other,” Allison said. “For me it’s been a real joy to be around these men and women of Baylor Scott & White Health and I truly believe it’s our people who make the difference.”