A few years ago, members of the CARTI health care team found themselves in a difficult situation. They were in the red by nearly $6 million; their CEO of 25 years had just retired; and they had a large medical facility to run.
This was the scenario current CEO Adam Head entered into when he accepted the CEO position in 2017.
“The board was trying to decide what everyone was actually committed to and what this organization stood for, which was trying to deliver an excellent cancer care experience,” Head remembered. “We just didn’t know what it needed to look like in the future.”
Those weren’t the only big changes CARTI was experiencing. Founded in 1976 in Little Rock as Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute, CARTI spent decades — along with the rest of the medical field — mostly focusing on radiation treatment for cancer. But around 2012, the nonprofit started transitioning into more diverse care options and leaning more into medical oncology.
CARTI began performing more advanced forms of treatments, including surgery and diagnostic radiology. Then in 2015, after changing its focus away from radiation therapy, the CARTI team took on the tremendous project of building a 175,000-square-foot facility on a $50 million bond.
Essentially, there were a lot of big changes happening in a span of less than five years, and with the complexity of the organization as an operation, CARTI was suffering financially.
“We had about one year to turn things around,” Head explained. Although the issues at hand were complicated, the team took a fairly simple approach to fixing them. They simply closed themselves up in a conference room all day and talked it out. They listed all the things they wanted to change and all the things they wanted CARTI to be.
“We said, ‘Let’s imagine what cancer care could be in the state,’” Head said. “We imagined it being independent, being essentially free and having the autonomy to be able to get some things done in short order if we could pull things together.”
That day, the team came out with a simple but powerful vision statement — to be the cancer treatment destination in Arkansas. “We kick-started with that new culture — culture has to be the foundation — and we re-established our values,” he added.
Within nine months, CARTI went from losing nearly $6 million in 2017 to turning a profit in 2018. “During that moment, we knew we had done something that was pretty spectacular. That was the beginning,” Head said.
Four years later, CARTI is in a completely different state. It now has 45 physicians and 400 employees. Its comprehensive services cover surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and diagnostic radiology. The organization has 19 total locations; six of them are comprehensive cancer centers. CARTI’s services are available in every county in Arkansas, and it treats more than 35,0000 patients per year.
Reflecting back on these significant achievements, Head said that what he’s most proud of is his team.
“I would say that in mainly insurmountable odds, they chose to say, ‘not today’ in the midst of it, and they turned resolute and made changes.”
Head took an interesting career track to his current role. Pre-9/11, he was enrolled in ROTC while attending the University of Arkansas. He was serving in the U.S. Army as a medical service corps officer when he was quickly deployed to a combat zone in 2005. That’s where he picked up an important skill he still uses today. “In the army, I was interacting in crisis decision making,” Head said. “Certainly, there is a parallel.”
Head’s military experience became a strong part of his foundation going forward. He transitioned out as a captain in 2008 and a couple years later, graduated from Capella University with an M.B.A., merging his leadership experience with business administration. The rest of his career path includes working as an administrator at Encompass Health, Medical Assets Holding Company and Arkansas Heart Hospital before taking on the position of president and CEO at CARTI.
A bold vision
For the CARTI team, the challenge wasn’t just to save the organization. It was to change cancer care as a whole. Most health care professionals in Arkansas will say that accessibility is a fundamental problem in the state.
“The thing that really caught my attention early on after we were able to go through this kind of dramatic transformation within that first year is, you know what? Let’s look out across the state,” Head said. “How can we really change things in terms of not just making care accessible, but delivering it in such a way where patients don’t even have to make a drive to Little Rock, much less drive outside the state. We have the platform for a lot of the technology that’s needed, so let’s go to patients around the map rather than make them come to us.”
CARTI continues to expand and offer more cancer care closer to patient’s homes. The organization just opened its third breast cancer center last month. Located in Russellville, it provides 3D mammography with the latest SmartCurve and MammoPad technology. Since Arkansas ranks 35th in participation of mammograms with only 65 percent participation of women 45 and older getting mammograms, the hope is that this technology will reduce the pain and anxiety associated with the exam and increase the number of women who get screened.
CARTI also has two more cancer centers under construction (in Pine Bluff and El Dorado) in addition to a new surgery center in Little Rock. The El Dorado cancer center will open this fall, and the Pine Bluff location will open in January 2022. The two centers are important locations for people in south Arkansas who travel hours for care. According to Head, they are seeing a rise in cancer cases in that region, and he feels it is critical to take “state-of-the-art equipment, people, personnel and support to where it’s needed most.”
The brand-new, two-story surgery center will open in the fall of 2022 on the main Little Rock campus. This will be the first center of its kind in the state and provide more complex surgeries where patients can stay overnight. It will be the second-largest construction project for the organization since the completion of CARTI’s Little Rock cancer center in 2015.