May 2021 | 

Empowering Nursing Leaders: The Future of Health Care

Empowering Nursing Leaders: The Future of Health Care

In what now seems a prophetic announcement, the World Health Organization designated 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse. Tied to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the disclosure came just as COVID-19 put nurses around the globe on the front lines of the pandemic.

Edwidge Thomas, medical director and adult nurse practitioner at Mt. Sinai, one of the largest hospitals in the U.S., says COVID-19 put extraordinary demands on her leadership. “It turned everything upside down. It taught me that as much as I have experience and competencies, there are areas for improvement. When you are dealing with so much uncertainty, how do you know if your decisions are correct or your strategies are right?”

For Kathy Pearson, director of the Wharton Nursing Leaders Program and an adjunct senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, the pandemic raised a different question. The strategist and authority in decision making knew the week-long program could help participants in an unprecedented crisis, but would it make sense to run it in December, while the pandemic was still spreading in most of the world?

“We had discussions with a number of stakeholders,” she says, “including Dr. Regina Cunningham, CEO of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a nurse herself, who speaks in the program. She told us we had to run it: the need is even greater today.”

Thomas agrees. “With so many demands on our time, it might seem counterintuitive to pursue education right now. But the timing could not have been more perfect.” She attended the online program, one of 25 members of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) who took part through a partnership between Johnson & Johnson and Wharton. Johnson & Johnson’s support fulfills a 134-year-old commitment to empower nurses, “bold, patient-centered leaders, change makers and problem solvers, who serve as engines of innovation in transforming healthcare.”

Kim Scott, a service unit manager with Kaiser Permanente and a past board member of NBNA, says, “It was important to see an intentional partnership between these organizations. They gave us a tangible way to improve, and an opportunity to be at the table. I am grateful and privileged to have had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Kathy Pearson, who has directed Nursing Leaders for the past 16 years, says the primary focus of the program has always been on strategic execution, helping participants lead the collaborative effort to move an organization forward. It includes sessions on planning and managing projects, conducting stakeholder analyses, negotiating, thinking more creatively, leading innovation and execution, and managing under uncertainty.

“The world changed since the last time the program was held,” she says, “and while the nuts and bolts remained the same, topics like innovation now mean something different. There is a new entrepreneurial spirit and positive energy. The participants all had major stress, having to motivate and retain burned-out staff and handle the emotional toll of the pandemic. But they were excited to be with one another. Seeing that was inspirational for me and for the other faculty.”

The program has provided comprehensive leadership training for nurse managers since 2002. It is included as part of management training by a number of hospitals, and qualifies for 25 credit hours of continuing education by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. In a session led by Dr. Cunningham, she stressed the importance of professional development, noting that the already disrupted industry would be transformed post-COVID-19, and nursing “has to have a seat at the table. They must be prepared to help shape the future of health care.”

“The Nursing Leaders program addressed many of the challenges I face in a management role,” says Kim Scott, “including handling multiple teams in different locations with different cultures. I came away with tools to help organize, prioritize, manage politics, and connect more with my team. I go to conferences every year but I never come away with all of the resources and knowledge I want. Professional development is always one of my annual goals, and Wharton’s Nursing Leaders was just what I needed. It was empowering and aspirational, and I left with greater confidence.”

About a month after she attended, Scott was able to put confidence and skills to the test during a virtual interview for a new position as a director. “In the program we talked about developing your presence online, and one of the breakout sessions was on applying for a job and negotiating a salary. I normally would have shied away from negotiations, so that really helped me. I felt confident asking the recruiter for exactly what I was looking for.”