A 'drive-through' the world of Alice Edwards

March 15, 2022
Edwards standing the hallway outside her office
As a kid, Alice Edwards always thought she wanted to be a dentist like her dad. That is, until she went on a home visit with him and saw a particularly bad abscessed tooth. "Yeah, then I was out,” she said. Photos by Sarah Pack

Probably the biggest irony of Alice Edwards’ job is that she spends the majority of her workday in a place she doesn’t want others to ever have to come.

As MUSC Health-Charleston Division’s chief ambulatory officer, Edwards is responsible for the operation of all 120 of the hospital’s outpatient clinics in the Charleston area. That’s more than 1,200 employees, serving roughly 1.8 million patients per year. 

“The main goal of ambulatory is to keep patients out of the hospital,” she said from her Calhoun Street office, situated on the edge of MUSC’s downtown campus. Not completely, obviously. People will always get sick or have chest pains or break bones – even she can’t control that … though she tries. Instead, Edwards’ focus is on reducing the number of sick or injured people needing to go to the hospital as well as improving their experiences in the clinics.

“It sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest problems require the most thought,” she said. 

Edwards is a self-proclaimed morning person. “That’s when I do my best thinking,” she said. Coffee in hand. Phone silent. Spreadsheets on monitors in front of her. But the most important thing is what’s not present: meetings. The beginning of the workday is sacred to the Georgetown native. 

“I try to block time on my calendar every morning so I can follow up on emails, analyze data, work on whatever needs my attention,” she said. “A little quiet can go a long way,” admitted the mother of two, with a knowing smile.

But all good things must come to an end. And so once that time is over, the rest of the day gives way to meetings and more meetings. “Not to brag, but I’ve gotten pretty good at video conferences,” she laughed. 

Fiscal to feel-good

At the age of 25, Edwards moved to Charleston and enrolled at MUSC, where she would eventually earn her Master of Health Administration from the College of Health Professions. Before she graduated, she landed an interview with the then-administrator of ambulatory services at the hospital. Little did she know it was a job she would inherit and transform years later. 

Upon graduation, she was offered a job as a process engineer with MUSC Physicians. It was in this role that she got her first taste of how quality data and feedback could lead to a better, more efficient clinical space. As the years went on, her job changed. Soon she was heading up special projects for the CEO, handling business development, being entrusted with ways to run things more efficiently. It was this last task that allowed her to shine her brightest, taking a somewhat fragmented organizational structure and transforming it into one that was more centralized with streamlined leadership – one that she would eventually be tapped to lead. 

She’s been in the current role of chief ambulatory officer for a little over five years now, and she’ll tell you she still enjoys the challenge of the job as much as she did the very first day. In addition to finding ways to make patients’ experiences more pleasant, Edwards is responsible for all long-term strategies as well as finances for all of MUSC Health-Charleston Division's 120 outpatient clinics. From the bottom line to the waiting room, fiscal to feel-good, she is intimately connected to all of her locations. But it’s probably the most unexpected of all those locations that fills her with the most professional pride. 

In 2020, as the world was beginning to come to grips with a relentless virus, Edwards and her team hatched a plan to create a drive-through site for people who suspected they might be COVID-positive. In March of that year, MUSC Health, under the direction of Edwards, opened the West Ashley drive-through COVID specimen collection site outside of Citadel Mall. 

Edwards standing outside under tent addressing more than a dozen colleagues on the first day of the COVID drive through in 2020. 
Edwards (center) addresses MUSC Health staff members on the morning of the very first day of the West Ashley drive-through COVID specimen collection site in March of 2020.

“When COVID came along, everything changed,” said Erik Modrzynski, ambulatory environmental health and safety and emergency manager for MUSC Health. “In order to stay in front of this virus, we needed to move quickly on things – and for obvious reasons, that’s not usually the way health care works. But with the drive-through collection site, where time was so critical, Alice was the person that moved the roadblocks. She got all the right people in the room and things happened fast.” 

Over the next 13 months, MUSC Health would serve hundreds of thousands of patients during a time of tremendous uncertainty. Though “we were building the plane as we were flying it,” she’ll say, in the end they got it so very right. In fact, it was so successful that almost immediately other hospitals across the country were asking Edwards and her team for help with replicating it. 

Her calm, decisive leadership, when stakes were at their highest and nerves at their rawest, earned her tremendous respect from her colleagues and leaders. Her many contributions during this time led to her being recognized during Women’s History Month. The national 2022 theme “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope,” is, according to the National Women's History Alliance, “both a tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.”

Modrzynski, who used to be a firefighter added: “Over the years I’ve worked with some great leaders – there were some really great fire chiefs along the way – and in many ways, Alice is no different. There’s a trust there. Because of that, she’s always open to trying new things, which is exactly how innovation happens.”

Edwards does not take this recognition – or her contributions during the pandemic – lightly. 

“As I look back, it’s probably one of the most profound things I’ve done in my career,” she said. “Fortunately – I hope – it was a once in a lifetime experience, but it was truly amazing to see it all come together, to see MUSC be so nimble. Everybody came together to make that happen. But I pray we never have to do it again.”

If we do, rest assured Edwards will be there – early in the morning, coffee in hand – figuring out ways to deal with it. And odds are she’ll figure it out, too. Most certainly in a meeting.