Ten Questions with Susan B. Hassmiller

    • October 7, 2008

1. What first attracted you to the nursing profession?My mother was a nurse and sometimes she would bring me to work with her. The patients would tell me how much my mother had helped them. Also, the other nurses told me what a great nurse my mother was. It made me proud and curious at the same time so I decided to try my hand at being a candy striper and then a nurse’s aide. You can’t beat the satisfaction that comes from helping others with not only the most basic of human needs, and sometimes even saving their lives and everything in between. I can’t think of a more important profession.

2. You have volunteered with the American Red Cross since your college days. Can you tell us something about your history with that organization?I was home from college house-sitting while my parents were on vacation in Mexico City. I saw a newsflash on the television that stated there had just been an earthquake right where my parents were vacationing. I panicked and did not know who to call for help. I dialed the operator and told her my parents were in Mexico City where the earthquake had just occurred. She said she could not help me, but knew an organization that could…and right then and there she connected me to the Red Cross. I talked to a wonderful woman who calmed me down and assured me that she would get back to me with news of my parents. I cannot remember how long it was, but she did get back to me with the good news I had been hoping for. When I returned to college I vowed to look up the Red Cross and do whatever I could for the organization that helped me find my parents. Now 33 years later I have been involved in every part of the organization possible from the local level to the national level. I have served as a nurse on a number of disasters, served on the National Board of Governors, where I chaired the committee overseeing all of disaster and chapter services, and am now serving as a Senior Nursing Advisor for National Headquarters. In New Jersey, where I live, I am currently leading an effort to help the state build its disaster nursing capacity. Finally, my husband and I started an endowment at National Headquarters last year to reward one Red Cross chapter a year where they have made the most progress in utilizing Red Cross nurses in their chapter and disaster services.

3. Based on your experience, how important is educational background to the roles performed by the professional nurse?I can talk about myself as an example. I started out my nursing career as a graduate of a community college and felt that I was quite well-versed in the tasks that I was to carry out. What came for me, with continuing education, was a sense of myself as more of a leader and a decision-maker, someone who had an enhanced sense of judgment on the job. As a new graduate nurse I felt that I could help many people one at a time; as a nurse with more education I felt that I understood more about the systems in which I worked and could not only make a difference with my patients, but also make a difference in the systems for which I worked…and in effect help more people in the end. I felt that I could participate more effectively in how to change patient care for the better.

4. What are your primary responsibilities at RWJF?I am the team leader for our Human Capital team, whose members are devoted to developing important programs to build the next generation of health care leaders for this nation. We have a special mission to address the nurse and nurse faculty shortage. (Editor's note: Susan Hassmiller since has been named RWJF's senior adviser for nursing.)

5. What programs are administered by the Foundation's Building Human Capital?Among many programs, our team holds all of the legacy programs or those programs that do not have a defined end-date, such as all of our fellows and scholars programs. It takes a long time to build human capital. We also have special programming around diversifying the workforce, providing programs to teach health professionals the methodologies around quality improvement and, of course many programs to help us address the nurse and nurse faculty shortage. And we have “pipeline” programs, designed to attract and prepare young people for careers in medicine and dentistry.

6. What prompted RWJF to launch the New Careers in Nursing Scholarship Program with AACN?We were interested in getting as many diverse nurses to the field as soon as possible and believed that the accelerated second degree program would be the best vehicle for us. This year we provided support for 706 scholarships and will provide at least 1,000 more scholarships over the next 3 years. We are very proud of our partnership with AACN, which has already proven itself to be a great leader and administrator of this program.

7. What issues does the program target?We are hoping to provide as many scholarships as possible to get as many new nurses into the field as soon as possible. We are also supporting master’s level education so that more nurses might become interested in serving as faculty. Schools are encouraged to provide their scholarships to minority students, so that we might produce a workforce that looks more like the population it is serving. We are asking that schools provide mentors for these special men and women to help them understand that they are the future leaders within the nursing profession and should have a direct role in reforming our health care system for the better.

8. What outcomes are you seeing from the Nurse Executive Fellows program?We now have over 200 Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellows nationwide and they are doing exciting things for patients and importantly for many health care systems nationwide, which oversee care for hundreds and thousands of patients at a time. We encourage all of our nurse Fellows to expand beyond their own job, although they stay on the job for the three years they are in the program. They are making large system changes, changing local and state policy, writing books, developing state and national programs that are sustainable and replicable, creating the evidence for how patient care can be improved and disseminating best practices. Many of them have moved beyond specific jobs in nursing to those jobs that have oversight for large health care systems. Most importantly, our Executive Nurse Fellows program has a well-structured alumni organization, where they stay connected as a support system for one another. Each and every one of our fellows would say that they are able to make the big changes they are making because of the extraordinary and continued support from this special leadership network.

9. Why is it important for nurses to serve on boards?According to our RWJF national survey of organizations that are leading the way to improve quality improvement in this country, only 2 to 5 percent of all board seats are held by nurses. There are no more informed health professionals than nurses—their voices are an important and should be heeded as well as heard. Nurses know firsthand how to improve patient care; they know how to run quality improvement programs, they know what kind of technology works best; they know how to improve work environments, they know how to alleviate workforce shortages…many of the issues that health care organizations are struggling with. My question is: what organization would NOT want a nurse as part of their leadership team?

10. What advice would you give to a nurse who is looking for a leadership role? What experiences or opportunities should they seek?Nurses looking for a leadership role need to do three things: First, they need to prepare themselves for a leadership: that means continuing their education, getting extra training through certification programs, applying for fellowship opportunities, and gaining the experience they need to become established as a leaders in specific areas. This preparation process requires writing and speaking whenever they are asked and if they are not asked, then asking to be asked. Second, they need to seek the advice of a mentor and a support group – person or a group of people who can help them identify unique skills and talents, and can move them in the direction of those leadership positions. Third, once a nurse gets prepared for a leadership role, and finds the appropriate support system to move them along, then the nurse should do what I call “step up to the plate.” This means volunteering for positions and making known the fact that you are ready to lead. This also means making the case for not just why you should serve, but why a nurse should lead at all. It means a shift in attitude from one of seeing shortfalls to seeing solutions. Being on a board or in any leadership position means being solutions-oriented.