Don’t be surprised if the chief executive officer of your local hospital once helped patients take their medicine or recover from surgery.
Increasingly, former practicing nurses are being tapped for top leadership positions at health care organizations, and Arizona is no exception.
At least a dozen nurses — many of them still licensed to practice — are chief executives at Arizona hospitals, including two in the East Valley. The most recent hire was Laurie Eberst, a former critical care nurse whose new position as chief executive of Catholic Healthcare West’s upcoming Mercy Gilbert Medical Center was announced last week.
"More and more, nurses have been able to have advanced degrees, and they’ve been able to demonstrate that their contributions are just as good as other CEOs at hospitals," said Joey Ridenour, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Nursing. "They certainly have the competencies to understand all aspects of health care."
Having worked in the trenches of direct patient care, nurses know how health care is delivered from the ground level, she said. Health care employers are realizing that knowledge sets nurses apart from what has been the more common CEO candidate, with predominantly a financial and administrative background.
"They acknowledge that you need more than just a financial background. You have to have some clinical background to balance that," said Eberst, 47, whose new position as chief executive will be her first. Asked why nurses haven’t always been in top leadership roles, Eberst said: "That’s always been my question."
Long ago, nurses were leaders at hospitals, with people like Florence Nightingale, said Adda Alexander, executive vice president for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association. Then health care moved to a business model and nurses were relegated to other positions. Even as nurses moved back up the managerial ladder about a decade ago to positions such as chief nurse executive, health care organizations in the Pacific Northwest targeted them for removal as a way to save money, she said. The move sparked a backlash of employees organizing unions.
"I think it was a pennywise and pound foolish way to deal with finances, and now the pendulum is swinging back," Alexander said.
Today, the chief nurse executive position, and other leadership roles, have become springboards for higher-level jobs in health systems. Whether the chief executive position is open to former nurses — most of whom are women — depends on the organization.
"A lot of places around the country haven’t endorsed that women are the best person for the CEO position. They are the best people," said Susan Edwards, president of the Arizona region for Banner Health. Of Banner’s nine hospital chief executives, six are women, including five former practicing nurses.
"Because they’re nurses, they have great critical thinking skills, they’re very inclusive, very empowering, and they work in teams. That’s today’s role model for CEOs," she said.
With physicians, nurses and other medical staff members competing for limited resources, there was concern that chief executives who worked as nurses would show favoritism toward nursing staff. But those concerns have been dispelled, health care authorities said. Being in tune with issues facing nurses is now considered an asset, given the need to recruit nurses and keep the ones health care organizations have, Ridenour said.
"If a nurse (chief executive) can provide for and support nurses . . . nurses will stay," she said.
"If we don’t have people in positions of leadership who understand what the delivery system should look like, nurses will continue to leave."
Becky Kuhn, 52, chief executive at Banner Mesa Medical Center, said her experience working with patients as a critical care nurse has been a major asset, helping her understand the issues facing hospital staffs.
"Those who choose to go into nursing have an incredible range of opportunities within the span of their career," she said. "There are so many things you can do as a nurse, including becoming a hospital CEO."
Former practicing nurses who are now chief executive officers at Arizona hospitals:
1. Laurie Eberst, Mercy Gilbert Medical Center
2. Becky Kuhn, Banner Mesa Medical Center
3. Bev Weber, Abrazo Health Care, responsible for six hospitals
4. Sonja Hagel, Phoenix Memorial Hospital
5. Connie Harmsen, Banner Estrella Medical Center
6. Linda Hunt, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center
7. Tim Tracy, John C. Lincoln Hospital - Deer Valley
8. Dolores Horvath, St. Luke’s Medical Center
9. Ann Coleman-Hall, White Mountain Regional Medical Center
10. Linda Wojtowicz, (interim CEO) Sierra Vista Regional Health Center
11. Sally Jeffcoat, Carondelet Health Network
12. Colleen Hallberg, Banner Thunderbird Medical Center
Source: Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association