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Former Staff Nurse Returns as CEO


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Bedside nurses often grumble that the C-suite is clueless about what it's like in the trenches providing patient care. Nurses at Providence Hospital in Washington, DC, however, know this is not the case at their hospital. Their new president and CEO knows all too well what taking care of patients is like at Providence—she began her career as a nurse in the intensive care step-down unit at Providence more than 30 years ago.

Amy Freeman became CEO of Providence in March after spending the last few years in senior leadership positions at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Few hospital CEOs come from a patient care background, so I spoke with Freeman about the perspective she brings to the role.

"Having the experience of being a staff nurse gives me great comfort and ease in walking into patient rooms that others may find intimidating or uncomfortable," says Freeman. She notes that her nursing experience gives her credibility among patient care providers. "I've paid my dues in the trenches," she says. "That gives me some credibility among employees—I know what staff nursing is like."

More importantly, Freeman says she benefits from her understanding of patient care and the way multiple disciplines must work together in an organization to ensure safe, quality patient care.

"There's an interplay that happens in the care arena that you don't completely understand if you're just in the office," says Freeman. "At the end of the day, our work and our mission is to provide care to patients and families, and if you have been a provider of that care, you can see it through the patient's eyes."

Freeman does not approach her position simply with a nursing perspective.

"The greatest limitation is if you come out of the nursing orientation and are strictly rooted in that vantage point," she says. "You have to work hard to expose yourself to other vantage points."

As CEO, Freeman represents the entire hospital, including clinical professionals from every discipline and all the other employees necessary to ensure an efficiently and effectively run hospital. To be perceived as representing only one vantage point, Freeman says, would limit her success.

Freeman has been removed from direct patient care for years, after deciding early on that her path lay in management and administration. Following a master's degree, she entered a post-graduate fellowship in a nursing administration program at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where she later was director of nursing. During her time at Allegheny, she completed an internal fellowship in supply chain materials management Freeman says she wanted to learn about a different part of the hospital and to think beyond the nursing component.

Freeman says that such fellowships are rare now, but that they allowed her to gain a comprehensive management experience.

"For young nurses with management experience, it's sometimes hard to break out of the nursing manager paradigm," says Freeman, who wants to develop future leaders across nursing and non-nursing areas.

She says most hospitals have management and leadership development programs for nurses. Many hospitals pay for advanced degrees or have formal and informal mentoring programs. Sometimes the most important part is to spot the stars and encourage them to seek leadership experiences.

"When you see individuals who have capability, start working with him or her," says Freeman. With some employees, you can just spot their potential, she says. "You see critical thinking skills, organization and prioritizing skills, analytic thinking, good old common sense, people skills, knowing how to work with others, people who have a public presence and sense about them and are clear and direct.

She recommends helping those potential leaders to get credentialed, giving them projects, and assigning them more responsibility to grow their leadership skills. "Technical knowledge comes and goes," says Freeman, "and is often not as important because science changes so quickly." It's the other skills that are so important to the development of the next generation of CEOs.