Far from the hospital where she works, Jill Howard is working in a hotel room. Handling meetings, taking this interview, and also managing to read the constant texts coming from her real estate agent (she’s selling her house—the task she’s most eager to check off her list).
As the chief operating officer of TriStar Skyline Medical Center – Madison Campus, an HCA Healthcare hospital in Nashville, Jill has to juggle chaos like an expert … a skill honed during those initial years in nursing.
Six years since she earned her MBA Healthcare Management degree at WGU, we’re catching up with Jill to see how the transition from director of nursing to chief operating officer has been.
It’s been a few years, so we’re excited to share how one settles into such a prominent role.
One story Jill shares is that of Telemedicine, a new program that started in her hospital as a pilot. Her hospital is often asked to pilot new programs, as they are located so close to HCA headquarters.
“There is a major psychiatrist shortage across the country,” Jill explains. “Telemedicine is beaming in a psychiatrist—and it’s an absolutely huge success. It’s allowing facilities across the country, especially rural and resource-limited hospitals, to do more.”
“It’s like FaceTime, but using a more advanced machine. It’s super high-def, and the doctor who is remote can manipulate the camera however they need, 360 degrees. There’s no delay in the feed—it’s very interactive for the doctor and the patient. We can have a psychiatrist handle the case from the initial workup all the way through to their discharge. And patients actually love it—no complaints!”
From Jill’s graduate profile, you’ll learn that she beat out more than 35 bright, qualified individuals for her role. We wondered if there was anything specific about her WGU MBA program that really prepared her for the jump.
“Being a nursing director for years, you’re not involved in the finance end,” she said. “The hardest course in my program—but the most informative and applicable to my job—was the accounting course. As I moved into the role, reading balance statements, I felt much more prepared.”
Plenty of other responsibilities she has as COO have graduated to a new level since her days as a nursing director. For example, we asked Jill how a COO works with policy analysis.
“Every year our director-level staff are required to review our policies, and then they come to me for final review and approval. By reviewing them every year, I’m now very familiar—but in the beginning, it was difficult. Almost all of the policies are about day-to-day operations on the front line. I’m lucky to have a good leadership team who owns that responsibility. They usually don’t require many changes for my approval.”
Staff development is another example. As COO, her function has shifted more to oversight and budgeting for education opportunities for her staff.
“We have a full education department and I work with my sales team,” Jill said. “They help me arrange speakers and topics for lunch-and-learns every month. It’s oversight of the content mainly, but I’ve been putting more efforts into this recently—mainly because a recent survey revealed the staff wants more of it. We do open Q&A forums in addition to speakers.”
Regarding how she determines education needs for the entire hospital staff, Jill said, “We commit to rounding on every single employee, every single month. During that time, we’re essentially asking them, in many ways, ‘Do you have everything you need to do your job?’ We’ve been doing this for a few months now, and we’re getting great insights. It’s not a chore—it’s very cool. That’s how we identified that more learning opportunities were wanted.”
- President-elect of Madison/Goodlettsville Rotary: Jill has finished her term as President for 2014/2015, but she’s still in the club. Now, she sits as the Community Relations Chair. “I was a Rotarian in Missouri and have always felt it’s extremely important to give back and serve. I sought out this opportunity to serve in a leadership role.”
- Board Member of Mental Health America for Middle Tennessee: This opportunity came to her via her role as COO. As a board member, she has certain influence over donation funds and fills the expectation to serve up volunteers.
- Board Member of King’s Daughters Child Development: “I’m an honorary member of the board. This is a daycare for families who are financially challenged—a non-profit that provides care for children while their parents are working hard at school or in their jobs.”
- Board Member of Discover Madison: This one is new, and Jill is excited about the intentions. “Discover Madison is based around a train station and other historical sites. Apparently, they needed somebody who is energetic and who is not shy about getting out in the community to raise money. Someone said, ‘Jill is the perfect fit,’ so that’s how I ended up on this board.”
We closed the interview by getting nostalgic. Not unlike other alumni we speak to, when she graduated in 2010 Jill decided to fly to Utah in order to attend WGU’s commencement ceremony.
“The school was just perfect for me because I got to work at my own pace. I didn’t want it to affect my child’s life, or impact me being a good mother.”
When it came time to graduate, she explained the trip to her family very matter-of-factly: “I’m going out there. I’m walking across that stage. And I’m meeting my lifeline—John, my mentor.” Now, all these years after graduation, Jill said, “I wouldn’t give anything for that experience. My degree is the one thing I am most proud of.”
Q: What are your favorite memories from your nursing days?
A: [Laughter and a moment of reflection] “You know, honestly, probably my most fun memories are from working in the ER. You have to have a certain mentality—a different sense of humor. You really have to in that job—so we pranked each other and teased one another in order handle the scary and hard times.” Pointing to a very specific time, early in her career, Jill said, “In the largest ER in Colorado, 90% of nurses were travelers. You’re dealing with patients when they are not at their best. Nurses bear the brunt of that—and it’s challenging. We had to come together in interesting ways. We tried to lighten the environment for the patient, and also for each other.”
Q: What changes in healthcare do you see that excite you?
A: “The advances in technology that we’re seeing. It’s happening so quickly. We’re piloting new programs. One of the best examples is the Telemedicine program we discussed.”
Q: Do you ever get to put back on the nurse hat?
A: Not really, at this point. I still have a nursing license—I keep it current. If there is a concern, I’m often the one stepping in to assist. I’m out rounding but not in an active nurse’s role.”
Q: If you could sit down with policy- and decision-makers, what would you tell them?
A: “I’m really engaged with what’s going on locally that will affect my hospital, and patient care within. For me, at least, from a day-to-day perspective, I’d discuss the nursing shortage. Our shortage is critical. We never want to be faced with turning patients away—and there’s got to be a solution for that. As the large population ages, the need will continue to grow. Rural areas are affected even more. We need to be in prevention mode—not damage-control mode.”
Q: Where do you turn for industry news and continuing education opportunities?
A: “The Tennessee Hospital Association keeps me up to date with local and state legislation. I read a lot in the psychiatric field. I spend more of my time reading about psychiatric legislation that will affect my hospital. Also, the Tennessee Nursing Association provides great information.”