Viewpoint: Why hospital boards need more nurses

Mackenzie Bean (Twitter) – Thursday, December 14th, 2023

Hospitals and health systems lacking a nurse trustee on their boards are overlooking a valuable opportunity, Ellen Brzytwa, MSN, RN, said in an American Hospital Association podcast episode released Dec. 12.

Ms. Brzytwa became the first nurse trustee for a hospital in the greater Cleveland area 45 years ago.

“I was really unaware that this was so unusual,” she said of her appointment. Most of the other trustees were men from the local community with no healthcare background of any kind, and Ms. Brzytwa said she often found herself acting as a translator due to her strong healthcare literacy.

Today, Ms. Brzytwa sits on the board for Cleveland Clinic Lutheran Hospital and is part of AHA’s governance committee, where she’s focused on improving diversity on hospital and healthcare boards.

As of 2022, only 19% of health systems had a board member with a nursing background on their boards, according to AHA’s “National Health Care Governance Survey Report.” Ms. Brzytwa has been on a mission to reverse this trend for more than a decade.

“Now, I am seeing more interest in this than ever,” she said. “It was always just a hard sell — CEOs or trustees would say, ‘We have the chief nursing officer.’ And I’d say, ‘No, I’m talking about an outside, independent expert on the field of nursing that will bring you more vision and understanding about the complexities of patient care, about the huge nursing workforce.'”

Many boards are grappling with issues of safety, quality and nursing practice, alongside workforce challenges. A nurse trustee can provide invaluable insights to help boards understand all dimensions of the nursing shortage, especially how to increase the pipeline of new nurses, Ms. Brzytwa said. Plus, they already have strong health literacy and expertise in mission critical areas — two key characteristics of an effective board member, she added.

“To me, the case for having a nurse trustee is so powerful,” Ms. Brzytwa said. “It will help the other trustees as well.”

She encouraged hospitals and health systems to connect with the Nurses on Boards Coalition or AHA for help or more information about how to recruit a nurse trustee.