Culture of Caring

For Gwinnett Medical Center’s Cathie Brazell, the key to success as a hospital administrator is making emotional connections

Cathie Brazell, Gwinnett Medical Center’s vice president of operations and a former bedside nurse, comes from three generations of caregivers: her aunt, her mother, and sister were nurses, and her niece recently graduated from nursing school. Between them, they have more than 105 years of nursing experience.

But Brazell herself knew what her career path would be when her grandfather died when she was fifteen years old. “The nurses at the hospital acted as if he was their grandfather,” Brazell recalls. “I loved how they interacted with us, but it wasn’t about what they said. It was how they made us feel. I knew at that moment I wanted to be able to make people feel that way.”

Before joining Gwinnett Medical, Brazell was chief quality officer at Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. It was a position in which she was able to support staff throughout the facility, which meant she could follow through on her goal to make people feel cared for.

No matter what position she’s in, Brazell is proactive when it comes to building relationships and putting herself in the middle of the action to gain firsthand experience with operations and procedures and where improvements are needed. The strategy grew out of advice from her father at the start of her career: “Go where the work is being done.”

“My father told me that if you stay in your office, all you know is what people tell you,” Brazell says. “But, if you get out, you learn how things are really functioning. It’s also an opportunity to connect with people on a personal level and show them that you care about what’s important to them.”

To this day, she goes on rounds with various staff members at least once a week. In fact, she refers to those experiences as the best part of her day because they make her feel as though she’s going back to her roots. Brazell accompanies everyone from bike safety patrols and environmental service workers to neonatal ambulance teams.

“Healthcare is incredibly complicated and can become very siloed,” Brazell says. “An important part of my job is to show each person how they fit into the big picture. It takes a village to run a hospital.”

For example, if an environmental services employee says they just clean rooms, then Brazell explains how that activity is just as important as any other job because it helps keep the patient healthier, which gets them home sooner. She also gets directly involved in training and has used her clinical background to help teach topics such as proper cleaning techniques and clarifying who has responsibility for maintaining different pieces of equipment.

But her approach does more than create clear expectations, eliminate misunderstandings, and improve working relationships among staff. For example, rates of clostridium difficile infections have gone down, and turnaround time for preparing patient rooms has been reduced.

“I used to get strange looks when I tried to explain why just cleaning a room was so important,” Brazell says. “But the entire staff now has a much better understanding of how they all contribute to clinical successes. In fact, after a recent training session, the leaders got a standing ovation.”

Because she enjoys change and new challenges, Brazell actually took a step down in title when she originally joined Gwinnett Medical as director of women and children’s services in 2010. The department was facing a period of successive changes in leadership, so she devoted herself to working with people to understand employees’ strengths and how to collectively leverage those to positively impact morale and performance.

She was able to simultaneously create a plan that placed the right people in the right positions, helped them develop relationships throughout the organization, and then got out of their way. To this day, staff turnover has been reduced by more than 30 percent, and job satisfaction has increased nearly 19 percent.

A portion of those results can be attributed to Brazell introducing the Spirit of Care-Giving, a learning process originally designed to address professional burnout among nurses. Gwinnett uses the two-day interactive experience to help staff at all levels reconnect with their passions, both in their personal lives and on the job.

Brazell also established the Women’s Advisory Council (WAC). The 165-member group was established five years ago to give local women opportunities to network, to mentor each other, and to identify and address community needs. One of its more prominent accomplishments was recognizing the need for a twin-capable ambulance for the medical center’s neonatal unit, which treats infants from communities up to a two-hour drive away. WAC raised more than $250,000 for a state-of-the-art vehicle in less than a year. But there was one lesson Brazell had to learn when she made the transition from nurse to healthcare administrator: patience. “As a nurse, I got constant feedback from patients, staff, and physicians,” she recalls. “As an administrator, you’re successful if you are able to execute three to four projects annually. But when you do, it still feels just as impactful.”

Some new administrators that Brazell now mentors have no clinical experience. In those cases, she emphasizes the importance of direct contact and connections with patients, staff, and the processes and decision-making that go into working on the clinical front lines.

“If you only have administrative experience, it’s very common to view healthcare as a business that requires checking boxes and meeting goals for the bottom line,” Brazell says. “But whether you’re the CEO or emptying the trash, healthcare is about real people, emotional interactions, and treating everyone with respect. Once you make those kinds of connections, the business will take care of itself.”

Photo: Proper Medium

“Cathie Brazell has taken the success of our partnership with Gwinnett Medical Center to the next level. Her commitment to excellence in every aspect of patient care is inspirational and has elevated the performance of our entire team. On behalf of everyone at Clarus Linen Systems, we congratulate Cathie for this well deserved recognition.”

-John Giardino, CEO, Clarus Linen Systems

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