Training leaders, harnessing data for better health

Director of Center for Nursing Leadership brings experience as a researcher, professor, analyst and consultant

Ronda Hughes isn’t satisfied with the state of health care in the United States — and she’s spent her whole career trying to improve it.

As incoming director of the Center for Nursing Leadership (she started in June), the Maryland native brings with her a wealth of experience as a researcher, professor, analyst and consultant; her most recent position was in Wisconsin as an associate professor at Marquette University and a senior consultant with the Labor Management Institute, which works with hospitals. Hughes’ goal is to build the university’s Center for Nursing Leadership center into a regional destination for leadership training — and eventually a national destination.

“One of the things we have learned is that we can train you with the best knowledge possible, but then you get into your workplace and they say, ‘Well, we do it this way,’ ” says Hughes, an associate professor who also directs the executive doctorate of nursing practice program. “People in leadership positions encounter the same thing, but they are kind of left on their own — they don’t necessarily have the opportunities they need for skill building.”

She wants the center — which offers professional development through online courses and training seminars — to change that.

“When you are in leadership management positions, it’s a lifelong learning process; there is a lot of trial and error,” Hughes says. “So, we are also looking at expanding the center in the years to come so that it will become an intraprofessional center for leadership housed in the College of Nursing. We are going to collaborate and bring folks together. If you don’t have good leadership, you are going to have poor patient outcomes. If you don’t have good teams, you are going to have poor patient outcomes. It’s not just my opinion; it’s been proven time and time again in the research.”

Research and data are key to Hughes’ approach. One thing she has noticed over and over is that health care systems can generate lots of data — but, so far, they generally aren’t very good about using it to improve patient outcomes.

“A lot of times I ask people during presentations: 'If you were hospitalized today where you work, would you be comfortable being a patient?' And if I’m lucky, I get about 5 percent of hands raised saying they would be comfortable,” Hughes says. “There is a lot that goes on that needs to be improved — that people have become complacent with because it’s the norm.”

Too often, Hughes says, health care practitioners only look at data in a reactive manner — to address some question that has arisen after the fact. She wants hospitals and others to get more sophisticated and proactive in analyzing data.

“My research has focused on health care systems research — so, what works, what doesn’t and how we can make improvements,” Hughes says. “To use the data, it’s not just, ‘How many?’ It’s not a widget; it’s also applying appropriate research models and statistical tests. So much of what we have done with data in health care is widget counting: how many patients, how many days did they stay, how many were discharged alive. Well, that’s great, but I think we are at a much different point now, where we need more than that. So, were more patients discharged alive from this hospital versus that hospital because of the work environment, the mix of staff, because they have effective teams? Those are all things that we can have an impact on.”

A lot of times I ask people during presentations: 'If you were hospitalized today where you work, would you be comfortable being a patient?' And if I’m lucky, I get about 5 percent of hands raised saying they would be comfortable.

Ronda Hughes, associate professor of nursing and director of the Center for Nursing Leadership

Working with large datasets and looking for patterns can feel abstract at times, but Hughes is firmly focused on connecting the numbers with what matters most — patients. She recalls working as a consultant in a hospital that was beset with leadership problems.

“I got to really see what happens when things aren’t working well — when leaders don’t have the skill set they need to make good decisions,” she says. “It really hit me hard to see that. It’s one thing to study it, it’s one thing to do research and get large databases, but to actually be in it had a significant impact on how I view health care: the current state of things and where health care needs to go, while not repeating what we know doesn’t work.”

Hughes’ new position puts her in a somewhat different health care environment from her most recent position in Wisconsin. South Carolina ranks No. 42 in UnitedHealth’s annual America’s Health Rankings; it struggles with such issues as obesity, diabetes, smoking and inactivity. Wisconsin ranks No. 24 in the same report. Hughes is well aware of the health challenges, and she is excited about the opportunity to develop the leaders who will address these challenges in the years to come.

“Throughout my education and career, I have been honored to learn from and work with the best in the field, and the University of South Carolina is no exception,” she says. “Specifically in the College of Nursing, there is great history of leadership in the college and within the state. The college also has the No. 1 online graduate programs in the nation. I am looking forward to meeting and building relationships within the college, across the university and throughout the state. It truly is an honor to be here.”

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