Hospital boards that want to gain valuable perspective into the patient experience, the workforce and ways to accomplish the Triple Aim should seek out trustees with a background in nursing.

Joanne Disch, R.N., director of the University of Minnesota’s Katharine J. Densford International Center for Nurse Leadership, said the “nurses lens” brings a specific viewpoint to decision-making, according to the American Hospital Association’s summer issue of Great Boards. This perspective is informed by the fact that nurses need to understand people to treat patients, and can engage a diverse group of stakeholders with their wide range of interpersonal skills, Disch said.

The AHA lists a number of other reasons nurses should be a part of hospital boards, including:

  • They have proximity to the science of medicine. Nurses have a scientific understanding of care processes and can offer boards a look into that world when leadership wants to make changes to the care system. Nurses work well in tandem with other healthcare professionals to ensure that boards are as informed as possible when making changes that affect clinicians.

  • They’re informed on patient safety and quality. One of the most important responsibilities of a hospital’s board–in both a financial and a strategic sense–is to ensure that patients are getting safe and high-quality care, according to the AHA. Nurses provide invaluable insight into what works and what doesn’t for patients, and how to improve existing initiatives.

  • They can connect to the community. Nurses, as one of the front-line groups in a hospital, develop close relationships with patients and their families. Use their experience to better connect with the surrounding communities, the AHA recommends.

Nurses are underrepresented on hospital boards–they comprise only about 6 percent of board members, FierceHealthcare previously reported–and it is necessary that they are given a more active role in the trustees’ decision-making process, according to Great Boards. Having a wealth of physicians on the board and gathering input from a Chief Nursing Officer is not enough, according to the AHA, as doctors offer a different perspective than nurses and a CNO is an employee of the hosptial, not someone who can play an independent director’s role.

Nurses looking to take on a board member role should seek out similar voluntary positions at non-profits to gain experience, FierceHealthcare previously reported, and meet with the board chair to learn more about its goals.

Although nurses can provide tremendous value to hospital boards, many don’t feel as if they are well prepared to serve in a governance position, Rachel Polhemus, senior partner of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, told Becker’s Hospital Review. To help prepare nurses to serve on the board, she suggests they look for voluntary board roles at nonprofit organizations, such as the local rotary club or chamber of commerce. Polhemus also recommends that nurses meet with the board chair to understand the board’s goals, mission and vision.

Hospital and health system boards increasingly need members with clinical experience to meet the governance needs of today’s industry to help their organizations improve care quality, address population health and reduce costs.

Nurses, however, despite playing a vital role in patient care delivery, have not traditionally had these board opportunities. According to the most recent American Hospital Association governance data, from 2014, nurses make up only 6 percent of hospital board members.

Furthermore, experienced nurses and nurse leaders do not always position themselves well to secure a board seat, according to Rachel Polhemus, senior partner of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.

“Nurses can be incredibly valuable to boards,” she says. “But many nurses don’t feel like they are well prepared for the task.”

Here, Ms. Polhemus provides four things nurses can do to better prepare themselves to serve on hospital and health system boards.

1. Know the core competencies and skills boards are looking for. Many times a board will have a whole list of competencies, and they are looking to ensure their board makeup covers these components. Nurses should make certain they are coming to the table with those competencies checked off. Otherwise, they might not be the best fit for that particular board seat. For instance, a nurse coming from the nonprofit sector who is not as knowledgeable about finances might not be the best fit for the board of a biotech company looking for somebody with financial expertise who has worked in the biotech industry. “It’s really thinking about ‘How do I build my resume to be on a board that I’m attractive to, the right kinds of boards I want to serve on,'” Ms. Polhemus says.

2. Start small. Nurses should look for voluntary board roles at nonprofit organizations, or with board associations related to their subspecialty, according to Ms. Polhemus.  Community boards, such as a rotary club or chamber of commerce board, may also be helpful in preparing a nurse to serve on a hospital or health system board, she says. “It’s giving you the exposure to understanding what governance means and what your role is. When you serve on a board it’s a really big undertaking that can’t be taken lightly, and you’ve got to be willing to have the time commitment to be a member of that board, attend the meetings, contribute and be a part of subcommittees of the board. There’s a lot of work that goes behind it…You’ve got to know there are a lot of undertakings with it.”

3. Look for mission alignment. Ms. Polhemus also encourages nurses to meet the chair of the board they want to serve on, as well as the organization’s CEO, so they understand what their goals, mission and vision are. “Those are critical relationships because if you’re not aligned with the CEO, that could be a decision factor whether it’s the right board for you,” she adds.

4. Don’t worry about a lack of “board readiness.” Every first-time board member goes through a baptism by fire, and the best way to get governance experience is to learn by doing and have strong mentors, according to Ms. Polhemus. These mentors can help educate the individual on details of the organization or strategic goals or history. The organization “wants a new board member who can value-add and bring a perspective and support the organization’s mission and objectives for the future,” Ms. Polhemus says. “So no one’s going to come completely ready, but you want to make certain the board supports your on-boarding process.”


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