The power of learning

WellStar’s education programs help employees advance

In finding more ways to help employees meet academic and career goals, WellStar Health System is putting real strength into the idea of lifelong learning.

Bethany Robertson, executive director of organizational learning at WellStar, credits top leaders with understanding that learning and development play an important role in achieving strategic organizational initiatives. WellStar’s innovative education programs help retain top talent, prepare future leaders and keep their system on the cutting edge of health care.

Michelle Kimrey, patient liaison for the cardiac catheterization lab at WellStar Kennestone Hospital, is one of those future leaders. When Kimrey first heard about the new role of clinical nurse leader (CNL), she knew it was right for her.

“I wanted to advance my education and my role, but I didn’t want to become a nurse manager or a nurse practitioner,” said Kimrey, RN, BSN, PCCN-CMC. “Staying at the bedside was the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”

The new role stems from the increasing complexity of health care and challenges of nursing. A clinical nurse leader is a master’s-prepared bedside nurse who focuses on outcomes-based practice and quality-improvement strategies by coordinating patient care.

“It’s someone with a finger on the button of patient care, who, by working with all clinicians, can ensure that things are done right and in a timely manner,” Kimrey said.

The University of West Georgia offered a CNL program, but it was out of her reach financially and geographically.

“I live in Woodstock and I couldn’t drive to Carrollton after work for classes,” she said.

Becoming a student in the CNL program became possible when WellStar partnered with West Georgia to pay her tuition and bring it to the health system’s WellStar Development Center. Kimrey and a cohort of 15 other WellStar nurses take classes at the center once a week and online.

“The biggest impact for me has been the focus on research and evidence-based practice. I’ve learned to analyze studies and recognize whether they would improve outcomes at WellStar,” she said.

Kimrey is looking forward to how her job will change when she graduates from the program in May 2013.

“Spread throughout the system, the graduates of this program will bring a change to the structure of nursing,” she said. “I’m very excited and grateful to WellStar for helping me do what I really wanted to do. The leadership here is phenomenal, and is making sure that we have what we need to be successful.”

Illustrating WellStar’s commitment to employing clinical nurse leaders, a second cohort of CNL students has already been formed.

‘Developing our people’

WellStar’s leaders couldn’t pull it off without help from other educational institutions. Robertson, who has both health care and academic backgrounds, has forged partnerships with a number of Georgia colleges and universities.

“My team has more ideas than we have time to do them, and the full support of our top leadership,” Robertson said. “I have the fantastic job of developing our people, which we philosophically believe to be our most important asset.”

With five hospitals and other facilities, she believes that WellStar offers its employees the opportunity for a lifelong career path within the organization. Robertson’s job is to prepare them for it.

“If we want to keep the best and brightest that we attract, we need to help them develop to the next level that they want to go,” she said.

That philosophy is in perfect alignment with the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 Future of Nursing report that recommended seamless transitions for nurses to advance their education.

A partnership with Georgia Highlands College allows licensed practical nurses to earn associate degrees and become registered nurses. A relationship with Kennesaw State University offers an onsite RN-to-BSN bridge program.

The WellStar School at Work program provides any employee without a high school diploma or college degree an opportunity to advance academically.

“Through our Office of Career Development, a dietary worker who wants to enter nursing, for instance, can take remedial English and math courses here. An advisor would help her find and apply to a certified nursing assistant or associate degree program,” Robertson said.

Employees can go to the career development office for advice about academic programs or training to meet career goals. The department also oversees ongoing continuing education to help staff maintain competencies and learn new skills.

A partnership with management education firm Noyes & Associates trains high-potential WellStar leaders in a Foundations of Management course.

The education programs keep the 20-plus classrooms, 10 technology labs and two large meeting rooms at the WellStar Development Center at Windy Hill hopping. Education can be free, employee-paid or subsidized by WellStar in exchange for agreeing to work a specified period of time with the health system.

An education-forward approach gives WellStar a pipeline of trained talent.

“An organization committed to learning keeps everyone informed on the best and most innovative practices, and the organization moving forward,” Robertson said.

MBA/MHA program launched

Last month, WellStar’s first group of 40 MBA/MHA students started classes. Selection to the progam was highly competitive and students are from all fields. The 27-month program is a partnership with Georgia State University in which WellStar is paying $30,000 of the $50,000-per-student price tag.

Julie Hunker, assistant nurse manager in oncology at WellStar Kennestone Hospital, considers it an honor to be among the first students in the program.

“When they announced this dual program, it solidified my decision to get a master’s degree. I knew this was the one I wanted,” said Hunker, RN, BSN.

Hunker, who has already completed two online Harvard financial accounting prerequisite classes, is aiming for a senior executive leadership position.

“Is this program challenging? You bet, but education should be stimulating,” she said. “Status quo never propelled anyone to the top.”