Home Escambia County AREF, a Center of Excellence in Pensacola

AREF, a Center of Excellence in Pensacola

From left to right — Jessi Truett, BCBA, Director of Research, Ashton J. Hayward III, President and Ellie Hartsfield, Finance Director

How many times have you driven by the trailer in Gulf Breeze adorned in athlete silhouettes in front of Andrew’s Institute and wondered what they do there exactly? Do you need to be an athlete to go there? Who is Dr. Andrews?


The dozens of drive-bys coupled with my recent involvement in the MONDE Fashion Show benefitting Andrews Research & Education Foundation (AREF) peaked my curiosity. And with that, I decided to sit down with Ashton Hayward, President, AREF and Ellie Hartsfield, Finance Director, AREF and educate myself on this world renown research institute that calls our little slice of paradise home. 

AREF is located on the Andrews campus in the Athletic Performance & Research Pavilion, they are actually a separate nonprofit organization (separate from Baptist and the Andrews Institute) led by Dr. James R. Andrews. Although AREF is funded separately, everyone on campus is working together. Working together to improve the health span of our community as a whole.

You know we all unfortunately get sick. We have all had injuries, and I think one of the things that we all want to try to achieve while we’re on this earth is health span,” said Hayward. “What is health span? Health span is the quality of your life while you’re living. We want you to have this optimum health whether you’re an athlete, whether you love to run, whether you love to play golf, or whether you like to push a stroller with your child as a mother.”

In order to organize all the components and moving parts, AREF is best looked at as a house for three separate components — The Eagle Fund, Research and Education.

The Eagle Fund is a program supporting injured and wounded service members from the US Special Operations Community in their quest to return to active duty and improve their overall quality of life. Participants undergo a full physical performance evaluation with the results providing an individualized game plan across training, nutrition, and physical therapy.  The program has proven to be life changing for many of these community members as it enables them to improve their physical health as well as their mental state of mind.  Serving over 1,000 special operations community members since inception. The Eagle Fund is a project not only near and dear to the hearts of the Andrews team, but our entire community.

“We take care of the men and women that help us all sleep better at night because we take care of our special forces and rehab them under our umbrella through the Eagle Fund,” said Hayward. “The partnership is with the state of Florida and it’s really unique because you know these folks are putting lives on the line every single day for us, and we get to be a part of their journey.”

The research element of AREF might be what stood out to me the most and what really places the foundation in a league of their own. The research team at Andrews currently has over 50 clinical research studies ongoing and these research studies will eventually turn into publications that will be available to physicians around the world. In real time, the dynamic team develops technologies across orthopaedic biological enhancements, fosters creativity and development through surgical skills training, and completes preventative analyses via biomechanics to further advance our priority of the Andrews’ patient care experience.

“Sometimes the doctors here will get cases that present questions about how something works or how they can make that better and they can bring those questions right here to the Research Center as an investigator initiated study,” said Hartsfield. “They then get their questions answered through a research and evidence based study. The physicians get to answer their own questions in real time and that’s how those better outcomes happen.” 

After an evidence based study they’re able to educate or disseminate that information across the globe. Educating goes both ways at AREF. They’re using their own clinical trials to educate the world, but they’re also hearing from experts around the country on a weekly basis. 

“From a global perspective, Andrews is a center of excellence, and I can’t stress the important academia when you’re talking about better outcomes for patients and going that extra mile,” said Hayward. “Every Monday night our physicians and physical therapist teams are required to go to Monday night lecture. Physicians, athletic trainers, physical therapists and healthcare workers from around the country and world come to educate at Andrews. We have a global reach right here in Pensacola.”

Once I grouped all three of these elements together under one umbrella and the Doctor James Andrews name, I was able to understand the global impact and wow-factor behind what they are doing right here in our community at the base of the Pensacola Beach Bridge.

Dr. James Andrews is internationally known and recognized for his scientific and clinical research contributions in knee, shoulder, and elbow injuries, as well as his skill as an orthopaedic surgeon. He has been a mentor for more than 600 orthopaedic and sports medicine fellows and more than 45 primary care sports medicine fellows. He serves as the Co-Medical Director for Intercollegiate Sports at Auburn University, Senior Orthopaedic Consultant for Intercollegiate Athletics at the University of Alabama and Senior Orthopaedic Consultant for the Washington Football team. Dr. Andrews also serves as the Medical Director for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Sports have always played and still play a large role in Dr. Andrew’s career and and also at AREF, but their goal is to keep everyone moving, no matter who you are, and to make sure the patient and their families are comfortable and at the forefront at the work they do.

“There isn’t just for one silo it’s for everyone and that’s okay. That’s what our research teams are for. We want to keep everyone moving,” said Hayward. “You have to be moving and as we age it’s even more important — that’s why I talk about health span so much and you’re gonna really read a lot about it in the next few years.”

After speaking with Ashton and Ellie for the better part of an hour, I can tell you I personally have a much better understanding of AREF and the level of medical talent that’s in our hometown, but I also can tell you that I only scratched the surface of all the groundbreaking work that’s taking place at Andrews on a daily basis.