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From Student Nurse Aid to CEO at The Christ Hospital Health Network

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   September 09, 2021

Deborah Hayes details her career journey, speaks on the health system's culture, and offers an inside look at the hospital's COVID response.

For the past 34 years, Deborah Hayes, RN, MS, MSN, MBI, MBA, NEA, BChas, worked at The Christ Hospital Health Network, where she has climbed the ranks from a student nurse aid to leading the Cincinnati-based health system.

Over the years, The Christ Hospital has received numerous accolades during Hayes' tenure as a leader, including recognition for being one of the top 50 hospitals in the country and being in the top 95th percentile in patient experience.

In a recent HealthLeaders interview, Hayes shared her career journey, spoke on the health system's culture, and offered an inside look at the hospital's COVID-19 response.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: Your journey started at The Christ Hospital as a student nurse aide and critical care nurse. Can you detail what your journey has been from then to where you are today?

Deborah Hayes: I started here in 1987 as a student nurse aid, I graduated from nursing school in 1989, and I started my career as a nurse in the critical care units here at The Christ Hospital.

During the time I was a nurse there, I also became the director of what was then called "the critical care nurse residency," which was a training program that they had created back in the late 1980s, because there was a huge nursing shortage in Greater Cincinnati. The Christ Hospital had built the program so new graduates could go straight into the ICU and practice. It was successful and we still have it to this day. It's called the "nurse residency program" now.

As part of my career progression, in 1996 I became a manager and progressively was given additional responsibilities over multiple units in the cardiac care units, the cath lab, and cardiovascular services.

Around 1999 I became a director of nursing, and then in 2003 I became the chief nursing officer for about 12 to 13 years. During that time when I was chief nursing officer, in a dual role I was the chief information officer for the organization. That was during a time when our health system was splitting apart and there needed to be a leader over our information technology systems and processes.

Subsequent to that, I took on some additional responsibilities, hired a chief information officer, and then became the chief operating officer and the chief nursing officer in a combined roll. In 2015, I hired a chief nursing officer because our health system was continuing to expand, and we needed to allow nursing to have a singular voice and leader. I remained the COO until October of 2020, when I was named interim CEO for the health system, and then I was formally appointed to the president and CEO role in May of 2021.

HL: What aspects of the organization made continue your career journey there?

Hayes: The organization has a culture of development, a culture of opportunity, a culture of excellence, and those are the kinds of things that are attractive to any employee because you have the ability to be proud of what you do.

Our hospital is the most preferred hospital in greater Cincinnati and has been so for about 23 years. US News & World Report named us among the top 50 hospitals in America for seven years in a row; we're number one in the city, number four in the state, and our cardiology program is now number 47 in the country. We have exceptional physicians here, exceptional nurses. We've been Magnet® designated three times.

Those are the kinds of things that you're proud of as an employee, and then as you become a leader, you get to see the extraordinary work from a different lens. I love this organization, its reputation in the community is amazing, and I'm proud to be part of it.

HL: What strategic initiatives does The Christ Hospital have going on that you're excited about?

Hayes: We have been known as the region's heart hospital for as long as I have been in this organization, and we have several exciting programs that we are initiating here in the cardiovascular space. We have several Centers of Excellence Contracts, direct-to-employer contracts that we're working on. We have a precision medicine program that we launched about two years ago and that is an extraordinary program.

Our physician division and our ambulatory capabilities continue to expand. We have about 400 in our physician division now, that's physicians and advanced practice providers and that continues to grow. We're expanding primary care and providing specialty programs in oncology, musculoskeletal, and women's services to serve the community.

HL: What was your experience transitioning from COO and interim CEO to permanent CEO in May 2021?

Hayes: With every opportunity that one gets presented in their career, there are different doors that open because of your willingness to step up and take on a new challenge. In the middle of a pandemic, it's important to have strong leadership with operational skills to lead through it. I always think of it as the right person at the right time, and I think I was it.

The transition into the CEO role has been rewarding. You get to see a different lens and your focus becomes more community focused, it becomes more externally focused, but yet you still have to be strategic with where the organization is going. You also have to be organizationally savvy to enable and empower your team.

HL: How is The Christ Hospital Network working to combat COVID and the delta variant?

Hayes: It's very unfortunate. We built a playbook, just like everyone else did back when the pandemic was new, and then used that playbook successfully as we've experienced these waves. This wave is a little bit different. We do have a playbook and that is helping us to manage through the day-to-day operations, but the resilience of our staff and the emotional toll that this is taking on our physicians, our registered nurses, and quite frankly on all of our staff regardless of their role here is quite extraordinary.

I liken it to a war that never ends. You have to be able to bring in fresh troops sometimes to give those who are on the front lines a break from the catastrophic loss of life that they see. Unfortunately, that's not always possible in a pandemic. Our focus is on how we support our staff, physicians, clinicians, and nurses to bolster their resiliency, bolster their emotional reserves, so that they can continue to care for the patients.

HL: What do you want to say to those who haven't received the COVID the vaccine yet?

Hayes: The scientific evidence is emphatically positive, and the science doesn't lie. This is a life-saving vaccine. This pandemic can come to an end as long as all of us do our part as citizens of this great nation, and choosing to get vaccinated is one of those things.

“With every opportunity that one gets presented in their career, there are different doors that open because of your willingness to step up and take on a new challenge.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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