Carolinas HealthCare System, the state’s largest hospital network, said Wednesday that it’s changing its name to Atrium Health to reflect its growth from a single community hospital in Charlotte to a regional health care giant.
The surprise announcement comes in advance of further news that could come as early as Thursday that Atrium will announce a major health care partnership in Georgia.
The name change also comes as Atrium is seeking to combine with UNC Health Care in a plan announced last summer. The new public, nonprofit corporation is expected to be one of the largest hospital systems in the U.S., employing 90,000 people and operating 60 hospitals.
“It’s quite remarkable to think back to our humble beginnings in 1940, when a group of ambitious, young clinicians answered the call to serve everyone and opened our doors as Charlotte Memorial Hospital,” Atrium Health President and CEO Gene Woods said in a statement. “Now, nearly 80 years later, our doors remain open, and we’ve helped our community thrive.”
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The change immediately raised questions as to why Atrium would go to the trouble of rebranding its entire organization when it is on the verge of negotiating a partnership with UNC Health Care System that will create a joint operating company with a new name. It’s also unclear how UNC officials feel about the change with their future business partner.
UNC system Board of Governors member Leo Daughtry said Wednesday he was not aware Carolinas Healthcare was becoming Atrium until a reporter called him to ask about it. UNC Health Care spokesman Alan Wolf referred questions to Atrium and sent a brief statement disassociating UNC Health Care from the announcement.
“Carolinas HealthCare System’s name change announcement today is unrelated to UNC Health Care’s proposed partnership with them,” the statement said. “The name of the proposed joint operating company remains under discussion and no decision has been made.”
Atrium Health said in a statement that the new name is separate from the proposed joint operating company with UNC Health Care but said UNC leaders are aware of the change.
“Branding discussions are part of the many details that teams from Atrium Health and UNC Health Care continue to work on for the proposed joint operating company,” the hospital system said.
Atrium also said it’s important to have a name that doesn’t limit the organization to a specific geographic area. It did not provide any details on the cost of the name change, which will take more than a year to complete.
According to its latest annual report, Carolinas HealthCare System owns, manages or has affiliations with 47 hospitals, from Western North Carolina to Charleston, S.C. One hospital is in Elbert, Ga. UNC Health Care, based in Chapel Hill, owns or manages 13 hospitals.
Kevin Schulman, a professor of medicine at Duke University, said the Atrium rebranding is a puzzler on many fronts.
“It’s a curious name because there are many health care companies with names that are already similar,” Schulman said. “It’s not really clear what these brands mean. They could spend millions of dollars changing their stationery and their signage, but patients aren’t going to have a different experience.”
The company said the new name is meant to reflect the various meanings of “atrium” – a place filled with light, a gathering ground and a chamber of the heart. The hospital system, which has 12 million patient visits a year, will keep its teal color scheme and an updated “Tree of Life” icon.
Noah Huffstetler III, a health care lawyer in Raleigh, was also mystified by the announcement, and said it does suggest the company has multistate ambitions.
“It is curious,” Huffstelter said. “My best guess would be that Carolinas is contemplating some sort of affiliation outside the state.”
Carolinas Health applied for the new name on Jan. 25 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The filing, submitted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, said Atrium Health would encompass a comprehensive health care operation that includes education, retail pharmacy services, air and ground transport, medical and scientific research, hospital services, physician services, clinical trials, wellness programs, and imaging, radiology and medical testing.
The organization, Charlotte’s largest employer, said it introduced the Atrium Health name to more than 65,000 employees on Wednesday.
Changes to the signs at hospital and care locations will begin at the end of this year and into early next year. Temporary signs will appear in the meantime, while advertisements will immediately begin using the new brand.