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IUPUI Magazine

Business Issue, Summer 2007

Nursing health care into a new age

Article by Ric Burrous

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Thirty years ago, Anita Harden spent her time on the night shift tending to her patients as a nurse at Robert Long Hospital on the IUPUI campus, then at Methodist Hospital. Today, Harden oversees all of Community Hospital East's patients as the hospital's president.

My, how things have changed.

Long Hospital is now an academic building for the IU School of Medicine. Community East is part of the explosive growth of the Community Health Network. And the IU School of Nursing graduate with an MBA from IU's Kelley School of Business has transcended her own career expectations, starting her fourth year managing the approximately 2,800 doctors, nurses and staff who serve the 250-bed care facility on Indianapolis' near east side.

"I've been part of Community for more than 30 years, and it's still hard for me to believe I'm here," says Harden with a smile.

Matter of teamwork

Making a major urban hospital like Community East work effectively requires several of Harden's favorite traits: teamwork and collaboration, the ability to learn and a willingness to take on - and overcome - challenges.

The latter has never been a problem for Harden. In the past 18 months, she's learned how to drive race cars ("it was something I'd always wanted to do") and started swim lessons ("better late than never," she quips).

So it wasn't a surprise to friends and co-workers when Harden - though she "loved the life of being a nurse" - began a move down a different career path. It started at Community Hospital North with her work with psychiatric patients, which had become her specialty.

"I looked around and saw all the things I thought could be done, and decided that if nobody else would do them, then I would," Harden says in a soft-spoken voice that belies her determination to succeed.

Her supervisors, especially Dr. James Davis, were intrigued by Harden's ideas, and they encouraged the young nurse to use her skills and knowledge reshape the care those patients received.

"I think Dr. Davis saw more in my ability than I did," she says with a smile. "He was always interested in hearing my ideas, and we stay in touch to this day."

The pattern of support from supervisors continued into the 1980s, when Community North officials Barb Summers and Mark Moore "suggested I could move into the executive ranks, and that I should go for it."

Hands-on learning

So she returned to school, getting her MBA in classes at both the Bloomington and IUPUI campuses. Armed with her degree and a determination to keep patients at the forefront of her work, Harden eventually became the vice president of operations at Community North.

"That was great training for the job I'm doing now," Harden says. "I learned how hospitals physically work, how groups of people interact, what they do on a daily basis. For three years, it was a great, great education."

And "Anita being Anita," as one of her staffers puts it, learned by doing.

"I've always been a hands-on kind of learner," she says. "So I shadowed people, then joined them in their tasks so I'd know what it took to do that job. I flipped burgers, I served meals, I even painted a few offices and rooms. But I learned."

That "hands-on" style is what Moore believes makes Harden successful.

"I am amazed at her approach to continual learning and self-improvement," Moore says. "Anita is constantly reinventing herself in order to best meet her goals and ambitions, which are always very high - and always seem to be achieved."

Harden's willingness to hit the front lines "taught me to respect our people and the jobs they do," she adds. "Doctors are always in the spotlight, and nurses, too, in a lot of ways. But it takes a lot more than them to make a patient's experience a positive one - quality health care isn't possible unless we all work together."

That team spirit is something she has fostered not only at the helm of Community East but in her earlier roles, as well.

"I think that's what I love most about Community East," Harden says. "People are warm and open; there isn't that 'class' system that some places have."

According to Summers, East's people-friendly style is a reflection of its leader.

"Anita has always been kind and thoughtful," says Summers. "She has a caring spirit and vision" that encourages others to follow her lead.

A nurse first

Though she spends most of her time overseeing Community East's operations, Harden still considers herself a nurse first.

"That's where my identity has always been," she says. "Nursing has had such a great impact on my life - it's just that now, my 'patients' are groups instead of individuals."

She still finds her nursing training valuable, even in an administrative setting.

"One thing you learn quickly in nursing school is to get organized and manage your work," Harden says. "I also learned that you have to go with the flow. Things happen, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. You're working in an environment with a lot of built-in stress, and sometimes, people just have to let that stress out. It's just human nature."

Most of all, though, she falls back on three vital lessons from nursing school: listen, think critically and help people remain calm.

"If you do those three things, whether you're a nurse, a doctor or an administrator, your life will go a little easier and you'll get more accomplished," Harden says.

Her career spans drastic changes in health care, from a greater base of knowledge for both doctors and nurses to technological solutions that once were a pipe dream.

"Research has become big, too, including for nurses, which just wasn't the case when I started," Harden adds. "We're asking so much more of our nurses these days; they're now doing work that once was only available through doctors."

When she began her duties as a floor nurse, she recalls, nightly backrubs were an integral part of a nurse's duties to help patients "settle in for the night. It may sound old-fashioned now, but it was a personal touch that helped a lot of people."

As an innovator herself - Harden helped shape Community Health Network's psychiatric nursing practices based upon her work at Community East starting in the 1970s - she welcomes those new responsibilities nurses tackle.

Still learning

As a nurse or administrator, Harden knows that quality health care revolves around lifelong learning. She started that path in the School of Nursing in Bloomington, finishing up at the IUPUI-based IU Medical Center in 1968. She earned her master's from the IU School of Nursing at IUPUI in 1973, then her Kelley MBA in 1989.

"I believe you always need to learn, to test yourself, to try new things and new approaches," she says. That spirit led to the swimming and racing lessons, as well as golf lessons and one of her other passions: quilting.

"Sometimes, I think I'm making up for lost time," she says, after being a full-time nurse, then a full-time administrator, and always a full-time mother to son Brian, who recently graduated from law school.

"I have to be a student and learn quickly when it comes to matters that cross my desk, like technology," she says. "Technology can do amazing things, but will it provide better care for the money we spend? Or would we be better off investing in other things. I always tell my people to 'show me the science.' If they can convince me of the value of a new machine or new technology, then it's easier for me to convince our board to invest that money."

She's also learned from her volunteer activities, such as trips to Haiti, Cuba and Vietnam on behalf of Ambassadors for Children, an Indianapolis-based not-for-profit organization that provides short-term humanitarian services to children around the world.

"Trips like those really make you appreciate the advantages we enjoy in our health care," says Harden.

Like most health-care workers, Harden is intimately acquainted with the inevitable highs and lows they face. Some patients get better and go home; others, sadly, do not.

"As a nurse, you're on the front lines," she says. "Sometimes you can see the difference you're making in a patient's life. When that happens, you learn to revel in it; those highs are so wonderful that they offset the times when things don't go so well."

She can't imagine a career in any other organization.

"It's been amazing to see how the Community Health Network has grown from just one place (Community East) to five hospitals and over 80 ambulatory locations," Harden says. "We've had excellent leaders, real visionaries who saw what was possible and what could make a difference. It's wonderful to be part of that culture."

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