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Heart of health care: Boston-area hospitals invest in nurses of today and tomorrow

Understanding the essential role of nurses, local hospitals are creating environments where they — and their patients — can thrive.

Nursing has always been a challenging profession, and in recent years, nurses have faced a pandemic, increasing hospital closures, and a national nurse shortage. However, nurses are also more valuable than ever, and Boston-area hospital leaders are employing every effort and innovation to retain them and bolster the pipeline of nurses entering the field.  

Ensuring a healthy workforce of nurses is important not just for those who work in health care, but for patients. “If we don’t take care of our nurses, it’s going to be really hard for our nurses to take care of our community,” says Puneet Freibott, system chief nursing officer at Beth Israel Lahey Health. “We are the educators; we are the caregivers; we are the ones that are going to tell you how to improve whatever is happening to you or prevent it in the future.”

“We are the educators; we are the caregivers; we are the ones that are going to tell you how to improve whatever is happening to you or prevent it in the future.” Puneet Freibott

From a focus on mental health to scholarships for professional development and more, meeting the needs of nurses today and tomorrow is a multifaceted undertaking. Here are some ways local hospitals are prioritizing their nurses.

Listening to improve nurse satisfaction and patient care

“As we were beginning to come out of the pandemic, there was so much disruption to our normal processes and operations that we went on a listening tour here at Dana-Farber,” says Anne Gross, senior vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She and other senior leaders spoke with over 500 doctors, nurses, and other clinicians about improvements they could make to better nurses’ jobs and work-life balance. 

Listening to, valuing, and supporting nurses’ input also benefits patients. When Dana-Farber Cancer Institute nurses thought weighted blankets might help ease the fear and anxiety of beginning cancer treatment, leadership listened and piloted a weighted blanket initiative. “They found that patients felt immensely less anxious in their first several treatments with the use of weighted blankets,” Gross says. “This is now in the process of spreading across the institute. Soon, anywhere a patient goes to be treated here in their first infusion visits, they will be able to get a weighted blanket. We’re in the process of implementing that.”

“As we were beginning to come out of the pandemic, there was so much disruption to our normal processes and operations that we went on a listening tour here at Dana-Farber.” Anne Gross

Gross notes that these conversations are ongoing. “We can’t ever stop listening to what our frontline staff are saying because different issues arise in the environment,” she says. “We have to be ready to hear them and respond to them.” 

Offering well-being support 

Local hospitals aim to keep nurses’ personal well-being top of mind through their benefits and programming.

“We want to make sure that nurses are receiving the support and well-being resources they need so that they are positioned to provide excellent care to patients,” says Kevin Whitney, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Mass General Brigham Healthcare at Home. Mass General Brigham offers system-wide wellness activities, peer support and coaching programs, and a comprehensive employee assistance program.

Beth Israel Lahey Health provides therapy, serene spaces around the hospital system where nurses can decompress, and access to critical incident debriefing teams. “When they have a patient who didn’t do well or didn’t have the outcome that was expected,” Freibott says, “they have an opportunity to talk about it before they take that back home.”

Building the pipeline for tomorrow’s nurses

Boston hospitals are partnering with the region’s schools to bolster the pipeline of future nurses. “Anybody who wants to be a nurse,” Freibott says, “come let us know, and we will find you the right path.”

Mass General Brigham has a school of nursing, the MGH Institute of Health Professions, but it also works with schools like the University of Massachusetts Boston to increase diversity and support additional students. The hospital system’s other partnerships include one with Best Buy Health, which provides scholarships to support nursing, paramedic, and STEM students interested in practicing home-based care.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, thousands of qualified applicants have been turned away from nursing schools in recent years due to staffing shortages that limit capacity in nursing programs. To help address this and the broader nursing shortage, Mass General Brigham and the MGH Institute of Health Professions School have partnered on a $6 million grant from the US The Department of Labor to educate the hospital system’s nurses to become clinical instructors.

Empowering today’s nurses with flexible development opportunities 

Institutions are also looking inward to develop future nurses and nurse leaders, emphasizing the importance of personal growth within health care. 

“One thing we are really proud of at Dana-Farber is our very strong commitment to the professional development of each and every one of our employees,” Gross says. “We have nurses getting PhDs, DNPs [Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees], [and] master’s degrees.” Dana-Farber offers both on-site continuing education and scholarships for college and university programs. 

Nurses aren’t the only ones who benefit. Dana-Farber aims to support all staff who are interested in other health care roles. “We’ve been focusing a lot on our clinical assistants who work closely with nurses and providing scholarships for them to pursue the careers that they aspire to but might not otherwise have the resources to do,” Gross says. 

Nurse pushing man in a wheel chair as he high fives the hallway full of nurses cheering him on.

Beth Israel Lahey also encourages nurses’ development by providing the flexibility to test out different kinds of nursing. “We’re trying to understand how we can create almost a passport,” Freibott says, “where you have the ability to try on any unit, any type of service that you want, and then find the one that speaks to you the most, where you can deliver your best care and be your authentic self.”

The future for nurses

“Healthcare leaders understand the value nurses bring to our community and our patients and their families,” says Debra Burke, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We are working hard to help nurses thrive in this post-pandemic environment and bring more joy back into their practice.”

For all its challenges, nursing has never lost — and will never lose — its meaning or the intrinsic rewards of a fulfilling career.

“It’s a very demanding career, but the rewards, I think most nurses would say, outweigh the demands and challenges if you’re able to take care of yourself,” Gross says. “I don’t know too many nurses who aren’t proud to be nurses and feel privileged to be able to do what we do.”


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