Cameron Flaisch and provided by Harbin Clinic
Healthcare and community.
That is a time-tested combination, a synergistic relationship that benefits both patients and the institutions that meet those patients’ medical needs. Harbin Clinic’s vision is “to become the preeminent medical provider in the region and to extend our role as a respected leader in the community.” That would certainly not be an attainable goal for some startup operation, but Harbin Clinic is no such fly-by-night organization. It is the continuation of a hard-won legacy and a long tradition of quality healthcare that has deep roots in Northwest Georgia, roots that stretch all the way back to the aftermath of the Civil War.
From Prisoner of War to Country Doctor
Wylie Reeder Harbin received his medical degree in 1858 from the Medical College of South Carolina. After serving in the Civil War, Wylie Harbin made the long trek back to his home in South Carolina on foot, nearly 350 miles.
Like many Americans during the post-war years, Wylie Harbin had to create a new life for himself. In 1871 he and his wife, Mary, moved their three children (Thomas, Robert, and Nina) to rural Northwest Georgia. Dr. Wylie Harbin hung up his shingle in Gordon County, near Calhoun, and began seeing patients. There, he and Mary had another son, William, and settled into the busy life of a country doctor. The establishment of this medical practice 150 years ago marks the beginning of a longstanding commitment to patient care under the Harbin name in the region.
Laying the Foundation
Over time, Harbin Clinic evolved to meet the needs of the community in Northwest Georgia and surrounding areas. Fast forward to today, where Harbin Clinic serves as the largest privately-owned, physician-led multispecialty healthcare organization in Georgia with more than 250 providers, 21 locations, 40+ specialties and growing.
Before there was a Harbin Clinic, there was Harbin Hospital. Harbin Hospital was established in 1908 by two of Wylie Harbin’s sons, Dr. Robert Maxwell Harbin and Dr. William Pickens Harbin. This hospital was a modest two-story brick building at 110 Third Avenue in Rome, across the street from First Presbyterian Church.
The original hospital consisted of only twelve beds. “Those were horse and buggy days,” says ophthalmologist Dr. Bob Harbin, a fourth-generation doctor currently seeing patients at the Harbin Clinic Eye Center. “From the very beginning, the guiding principle of all Harbin practices was focused on providing quality healthcare to meet the needs of our patients. My father used to tell me that his dad and uncle built that hospital because they recognized the need for a safe and professional environment to receive care. They were tired of operating on kitchen tables.”
The region’s medical needs soon demanded more space, so in 1917 a new four-story hospital was built next door to the original building, which was then converted into housing for nurses. This new hospital had more than triple the old one’s capacity, providing forty beds, and was built to modern fire-prevention standards. Still, demand grew quickly, so the hospital was renovated, raising it to a seven-story building in 1920.
After World War II, the United States government began issuing grants to assist county hospitals caring for veterans, and this funding allowed the local Floyd County hospital to expand. In 1948, the decision was made to convert the Harbin Hospital into an outpatient facility. The 40-year-old building was extensively renovated to accommodate the new operations, which provided a unit of doctors and all medical facilities under one roof. The Harbin Clinic was born.
Harbin Clinic established a unique organizational model, which allowed for the business of medicine to be managed by a centralized administrative team. Physicians and their teams had the freedom to focus solely on their patients’ needs without having to deal with the daily logistics of running a business. They could be doctors, not administrators and accountants, and they could prioritize their efforts on caring for patients. To this day, Harbin Clinic continues to operate as a privately-owned, physician-led and professionally managed healthcare organization.
Elbow Room Needed
The clinic’s unique physician-run structure began drawing interest from other medical institutions as Harbin Clinic’s reputation for excellent healthcare spread. One North Carolina medical consultant, Horace Cotton, after studying Harbin Clinic’s business practices, declared it a “strange animal” (but it was an animal that impressed him, and he subsequently used the clinic as an example to his other clients).
The clinic started to face challenges associated with its own growth and success; by the early 1960s, it began to feel hemmed-in. Parking in the center of Rome was an increasing headache, and the building’s single elevator needed replacing. Emotional sentiment for the beautiful old building aside, Harbin Clinic needed elbow room.
Harbin Clinic purchased a plot of land from Berry School for $150,000 at the corner of Martha Berry Highway and Redmond Road, now the location of the clinic’s flagship campus at 1825 Martha Berry Boulevard. After the purchase of additional tracts of land bordering this site, the clinic’s new property consisted of approximately eight acres. That sounded like a lot of land then, but it would eventually prove inadequate for future expansion.
The architectural firm of Toombs, Amisano, and Wells of Atlanta was hired to design the new building, and the J.P. Roberts & Sons Construction Company of Rome was given the contract to build it. In July 1969, the building was completed, and Harbin Clinic moved in.
At the time of the move, the new facility was owned equally by fifteen shareholders, all doctors, only four of whom shared the last name Harbin. That is an important point, in that a persistent misunderstanding exists in Northwest Georgia that the Harbin family “owns” Harbin Clinic. However, that is only partially true, and it misses the bigger picture.
The clinic’s ownership structure includes a physician partnership track that allows each physician owner to hold one equal share. Today, more than 130 physician partners equally own the organization, with more than 1,350 healthcare professionals and support staff working together to fulfill the clinic’s mission. The enduring success of Harbin Clinic is the result of the vision, dedication, and hard work of a wide range of medical professionals.
Carrying on a Family Tradition
Since his residency, Dr. Bob Harbin has worked for Harbin Clinic for his whole career. “When I started, I was the youngest doctor here,” he says with a wry smile, “and now I’m the second oldest.” When asked why he’s still working at the age of 72, he answers, “I just enjoy what I do. I have great partners I really love working with, and I’m glad I still have good enough health to be a contributing member of society.”
After having performed more than 26,000 cataract operations, Dr. Bob Harbin knows what it means for a doctor to gain the trust and gratitude of his patients, but he credits the current management for the continued success of the clinic. “We’ve been blessed with good leadership,” he says. “Our current President of the Board of Directors, Dr. Ken Davis, has business skills you don’t commonly find in a doctor. In my opinion, his vision and leadership are essential reasons why Harbin Clinic has been able to grow into what it is today.”
A fifth-generation Harbin physician, Dr. Sara Harbin Pickett serves in pediatrics in Adairsville. She is passionate about the benefits of Harbin Clinic being physician-led. “We want to create an environment where physicians feel heard and respected,” she explains. “Our daily encounters with patients allow us to understand the needs of our local communities. We keep patient care at the forefront and make decisions in their best interest.”
Reviewing his forty-plus years as a Harbin Clinic urologist, Dr. Peter Gilbert, now retired, lauds the history of the clinic as something that should be cherished by the community. “It’s a remarkable story of dedication, honest values, excellence, and quality of practice,” he says. “Harbin has always been committed to bringing expert doctors to the region so that our neighbors can stay close to home and receive quality care.”
Dr. Gilbert’s mother was Mary Harbin, who married Dr. Warren Gilbert, one of Harbin’s original founders. He stresses that the clinic’s strength comes from the quality of its training. “The original Harbin doctors trained with some of the best medical professionals in the country,” he says. “Harbin Clinic continues to hire doctors from highly respected institutions such as Emory, Vanderbilt, and the University of Michigan, which continues to increase the level of care throughout the region.”
Dr. Frank Harbin, the clinic’s first clinical psychologist, points out that growing up as a Harbin in Rome had its own set of challenges. When asked about career expectations while growing up, he says, “In our family, there was never any direct pressure to become a doctor, but it was always in the air.”
Dr. Frank Harbin chose to pursue a career in psychology, and he played an instrumental role in introducing mental health to Harbin’s list of specialties. “Mental health is critical to complete care,” he explains. “So many present-day illnesses and diseases are related to anxiety, depression or some other mental illness. I work alongside our primary care physicians and their patients to ensure we approach their care from all angles.” When asked about the clinic’s legacy, Dr. Frank Harbin got serious about the clinic’s standing in the community. “Our reputation has sustained itself,” he says. “Fortunately, we’ve kept quality healthcare going for a long time. Staying connected to your community is a powerful thing, and I believe people associate Harbin Clinic with quality care.”
Forging a Path to the Future
Harbin Clinic Vascular Surgeon, Dr. John Kirkland, has been practicing at Harbin since 1978. In collaboration with a colleague, Dr. Kirkland established a multi-specialty vascular program at Harbin Clinic in Rome, which included the first dedicated vascular surgery practice in Georgia outside of Atlanta and brought vascular care provided by vascular surgeons to the tri-state area of North Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
Dr. Kirkland’s dedication to his community is evident. Not only does he celebrate the foundations that the clinic was built on, but he also continues their legacy and has worked diligently to train the next generation. Some of his achievements include working with a local community college to establish a training program for Registered Vascular Technicians, developing a cardiac surgery program at a local Rome hospital and establishing an outpatient vein clinic.
“One of the reasons this is such a successful medical community is because there are numerous institutions and medical professionals who train nurses, aesthetician technicians, ultrasound technicians, respiratory therapists, etc. locally,” shares Dr. Kirkland. “The Harbin’s believed in providing quality training to their community, and this dates all the way back to the first nursing school they established. They did this in hopes that people would want to stay and invest in their hometown. We continue to follow this guiding principle.”
It’s been a long road from the humble days of Wylie Reeder Harbin’s country doctor’s office to the thriving institution Harbin Clinic has become today. Medical knowledge, advanced treatments and innovative technology have exploded in the ensuing years, but certain steadfast, time-tested principles remain in place. Harbin Clinic’s goals are significant ones, and they continue in their pursuit by putting patients’ needs first, empowering their physicians with the authority to lead, caring for the community in a socially responsible way, and providing top-notch care.
So, the story of Harbin Clinic continues, each new chapter being written by yet another generation of compassionate, caring healthcare workers.