Experience in nursing, administration helps exec lead health system’s school

It was science class that tripped up Michele Nichols.

As a high schooler, Nichols dreamed of a career in nursing. A college counselor redirected Nichols’ plans, however, after taking a gander at her science grades.

So instead of studying nursing after high school, Nichols took a series of office jobs and began working toward her education degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While in school, Nichols landed a job in the office of UNLV’s nursing department. Her interest in medicine freshly piqued, Nichols looked into what it would take to earn her nursing degree. Convinced she could succeed in nursing school, Nichols — who had completed 70 credits toward her education degree — switched majors.

Today, after roughly 30 years in nursing and hospital administration, Nichols is combining both education and health care as head of the new Valley Health System University. The university, which opens May 14, will provide centralized orientation and continuing education for the 4,433-employee Valley Health System, which operates Desert Springs, Summerlin, Valley and Spring Valley hospitals. A fifth local Valley Health hospital, Centennial Hills, is scheduled to open in November.

Valley Health System University will emphasize continuing education for the company’s nurses, providing services including skills assessments and internships for nurses considering a move into a different department.

Question: What’s the idea behind Valley Health System University?

Answer: It was the brainchild of our group director, David Bussone, who saw an opportunity to standardize efficiency. We have four hospitals and another one coming on board, and the majority of processes, policies and services at each hospital are similar. (Bussone’s) feeling was we could come together and not duplicate efforts in five hospitals.

None of the hospital systems in (parent company) Universal Health Services have such a centralized education center, so we’re the brand new guys on the block. We have a great opportunity here to really stand out in the crowd and be that benchmark for other systems.

Question: Before you became an administrator, you were a nurse. What was the most rewarding experience you had as a nurse?

Answer: Working as a manager in an emergency department was both the most fun and the most challenging experience. You just don’t know who’s going to come through the door and with what complaint. You probably don’t experience in most areas the team work that comes from an emergency department when there is a code called. Emergency departments are full of great people. I call them adrenaline junkies because that’s what they have to be to work in an emergency department. There are no more-dedicated nurses than those who work in high-risk areas.

Question: Why did you want to go into administration?

Answer: I actually didn’t want to go into administration. But someone in administration came and talked with me about being the assistant to the chief nursing officer. I wasn’t really interested until I started thinking about how I could maybe make a difference for the nursing profession and for hospital nurses.

Question: How do the skills you use as an administrator differ from the skills you used as a nurse?

Answer: The best nursing administrators look at things globally, because they are inter- acting with all specialties and departments. Other tools you need are mentoring, leadership and training. You’re going to need to learn the budget, and you’ll also need to learn to communicate with different departments and the managers and staff nurses in those departments.

You do need to be a good clinician, but you need to know the management aspect: How do you deal with conflict resolution and how do you deal with recruitment and retention?

You also have to learn patient contact from a different aspect. The patient contact administrators tend to get are the patient complaints, so you have to learn how to deal with patients and family members from that angle.

Question: What do you miss about being on the floor as a nurse?

Answer: Interaction with the patients. In every aspect of nursing I’ve been in, I have always tried to find ways to interact with patients. This will be the first time that I have not worked in a hospital. I’m going to find ways that I can get back into the hospital and interact with patients. But right now, this (university) is my passion, and I want to see it successful. The sky is the limit on the things we can do here. We can think out of the box and do things a typical university can’t.

Question: What is your biggest career accomplishment?

Answer: There isn’t one single major accomplishment, but rather it was just being in administration because that afforded me the opportunity to meet employees from every department. I think, if you ask most of them, I was very approachable. I was another person on the team, and never viewed particularly as the administrator. I would see (employees) in the hallways and they would know me by my first name.

My career highlight would be at Valley Hospital, because I spent the vast majority of my years there. It’s that group of employees and relationships. Over the years, that’s what I look at: Maybe I made a difference for somebody that was positive.

Question: Valley Health is responding to Nevada’s nursing shortage with initiatives such as the adopt-a-student tuition program and the new university. How bad is the nursing shortage in Nevada, and what are some other solutions to the lack of nurses?

Answer: Nevada has been recognized as No. 49 out of the 50 states for its number of nurses. We’ve been working on solutions through various committees with the Nevada Hospital Association. There’s also the Southern Nevada Medical Industry Coalition, a consortium of businesspeople running committees on nursing recruitment, retention, education and marketing (the profession).

We’re also seeing a doubling in nursing enrollment at colleges and universities in Nevada. The downside is, there are still not enough instructors, because they’re generally poorly paid at the college level.

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