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Cherry Drives Nursing Excellence Through Visionary Leadership

By Ruth Cummins

UMMC Communications

Dr. Kristina Cherry is UMMC’s chief nursing executive. Photo provided by UMMC

When Dr. Kristina Cherry became chief nursing executive at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the global pandemic was still in full swing – as was a national nursing shortage.

She put into action a short-term goal: workforce planning, not just for the present, but for UMMC’s future.

“We were already down,” she said of UMMC’s 3,000-strong nursing force. “We know from schools of nursing that they will not be producing as many nurses. So, a priority is workforce planning. It’s important to cultivate a pipeline of nurses and focus on retaining the nursing workforce and building a workforce for the future.”

“We are partnering with Dr. (Julie) Sanford at our School of Nursing about how we can make sure we have a good pipeline and we support faculty,” Cherry said of Sanford, who became dean of the School of Nursing in 2019. “We are looking at nurse residency and mentoring programs. What are the underrepresented candidate pools we need to tap into? What other team members do we need to support so that they can bring their expertise to the table?”

Cherry, who began her role at UMMC Jan. 2, oversees more than half of all hospital staff positions. She came to the Medical Center from Tennova Healthcare Cleveland, a two-campus hospital in Cleveland, Tenn., where she served as chief nursing officer.

Before her service in Cleveland, Cherry was a nursing administrator at hospitals including St. Francis Hospital in Bartlett, Tenn., where she was the chief nursing officer; Houston (Texas) Methodist Medical Center, associate chief nursing officer; and CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria, La., chief nursing officer.

Cherry “brings more than 30 years of nursing experience to the Medical Center, including 15 years in nurse executive-level positions in community, academic and for-profit medical centers,” said Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs.

“She has a proven record of success in the development of leaders, service lines, enhancing physician and associate engagement, improving clinical and operational performance and creating a culture of excellence. She is known for her passion for a patient-centric approach to care, staff wellness, inclusion and development.”

“I’m enjoying it here. There are lots of great things we do and can do,” Cherry said. “Everyone has been so supportive. It’s an interesting time in health care, and definitely in nursing. We need to see it as an opportunity to lead the charge.”

During the interview process, Cherry said, she was taken not just with UMMC’s top administrators, but other members of the health care team. “I heard how the team activated all sorts of resources during the pandemic, and because of networking with the community and other organizations, was quickly able to set up tents as alternative care sites in order to make sure patients were taken care of.

“I was impressed to hear that this facility created a test, right here on site, for COVID. We had physicians that were able to have the foresight to think that we might run out of ventilators, and to be able to put together one for our patients.

“That’s a lot of the mission of an academic medical center: not only to provide care, but to have the science and research to do all those things and to be innovative.”

A bachelor of science in nursing graduate of Tuskegee University, Cherry received her master of nursing from Emory University and doctor of philosophy in nursing from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She is a nationally certified nurse executive-advanced, a family nurse practitioner and an alumnus certified critical care nurse.

Cherry has been recognized with multiple honors, among them top nurse leadership awards and accolades for procuring research grants. She has served as an active member or officer of several community boards and professional organizations, including the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, the American Nurses Association and the American Organization of Nursing Leadership.

Cherry is providing visionary leadership for the defined standard of nursing excellence and enhancing the organizational vision and mission of the health system, Jones said. She is working with nurse leaders to improve quality of care and patient satisfaction and to identify innovative and strategic ways to improve financial performance, Jones said.

A critical work area is quality and safety, said Britt Crewse, chief executive officer of the health system’s adult hospitals. “Specifically, it’s looking for opportunities with CLABSI and MRSA infections, falls and pressure injuries. She will help our organization not only set targets toward (decreasing) those things, but determine how we are going to continue to improve in those areas.”

Consistently providing safe and quality care has been a struggle for all hospitals during two-plus years of a pandemic, Crewse said.  “It’s a big area that we will continue to focus on. Our patients need that, and they deserve that.”

And, Cherry is addressing a key factor in keeping UMMC’s nursing force strong and satisfied: their pay.

“We already had a consultant looking at our nursing compensation model,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to look at our current picture, and to see what we need to do to make sure we are competitive in the market, and to make sure we put things in a compensation model that also support the nurses at the beside. That’s definitely a priority initiative to work on.”

She plans to put together a Nurse Executive Advisory Council for workforce planning, which will ponder “what are our current outcomes are from a quality perspective, and what we should set as priorities we can impact,” Cherry said.  “We want to make sure the nursing team is driving excellence in nursing practice.”

The work by Cherry and the health system “will really help propel us for the next several years so that we can be competitive not just for today, but in the years to come,” Crewse said. “We’re looking at models of care in an environment with a bit of a shrinking nursing workforce, and seeing how inpatient and ambulatory care will look like in the future and how we head toward those new models sooner than later.”

Cherry and her husband Clifford live in Madison and have two grown children. “This area has been just a wonderful surprise,” she said. “It’s far enough out that you have the peace and quiet, but just a couple of exits up the interstate, you have lots of restaurants and shopping.”

Life outside the Medical Center includes Cherry’s love of travel, although the pandemic has kept the couple from hitting the road. “We like to go to places we’ve never been before to experience the culture,” she said. “We like walking and relaxing and having time with friends. We like to read as well.”

It’s not easy for a nursing executive to begin a new post and immediately effect change, Crewse said, but Cherry “has done it with incredible confidence.

“Kris’ vast experience has already been on display many, many times,” he said. “Her calm demeanor is really an asset to the organization.”

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