Rather than replace St. John’s Health Chief Nursing Officer Marsha Sensat, who resigned last month, with another CNO, the Jackson hospital has decided to embrace a shared leadership model.

Registered nurses Jennifer Chiappa, Mary Ponce and Naomi Starcevich will share the responsibility of overseeing 226 nurses and communicating with hospital senior management. When they met last Tuesday with the News&Guide over Webex along with interim CEO David Robertson, the empowered trio expressed enthusiasm for their new roles.

“I absolutely love recognizing and supporting the nurses that I work with, and I feel like this really gives me an excellent opportunity at a higher level within the organization to demonstrate our appreciation,” Chiappa said.

Ponce served as St. John’s interim CNO during the 2018-19 winter and said with established staff members stepping up, patients aren’t going to miss a beat.

“I was on vacation the last two weeks, and these two ladies were still able to function independently in this role without me,” she said.

Robertson first announced the joint-promotion in an email to staff that also announced Sensat’s resignation. The nurses were then formally approved by the St. John’s Health Board of Trustees at the board’s Oct. 28 meeting.

Robertson told the News&Guide a shared leadership model wouldn’t be his first choice at every hospital, but it works with the current personnel landscape at St. John’s.

All three RNs have or are working toward master’s degrees and were prepared to advance to higher management positions, Robertson said. If the Jackson hospital had hired any one of them to the role, there’s a good chance the other two would have left for another institution.

In the midst of a healthcare worker shortage, medical centers can’t afford to lose qualified staff members.

On paper, each nurse will officially be named CNO for a six-month stint to comply with federal and accreditor regulations that require a single point of contact for nursing leadership. The daily responsibilities, however, will be divided among the three to cater to each nurse’s strengths.

“There will absolutely be moments where the three of us don’t agree. But then we’ll do a majority rule sort of approach,” Chiappa said. “Some of the bigger decisions will be made as a team.”

Prior to their promotion, the women were already accustomed to working hand in hand on a daily basis. They share the caring spirit that defines nursing, and a gratitude for their diligent colleagues.

“It’s been a long road,” said Ponce, reflecting on the pandemic. “At the end of the day, we know that our staff are giving great care and doing a wonderful job. We just continue to look to them to give that patient the best experience they can have.”

This summer, she offered emotional testimony at a joint community update on COVID-19 where she urged people to get vaccinated and detailed how burnout was impacting hospital workers.

Robertson didn’t say whether Sensat left her position because of burnout.

“Marsha resigned and is exploring opportunities elsewhere,” he said. The CEO also reiterated that healthcare workers nationwide are leaving the industry in droves.

Shared leadership might be one way to reduce that trend. Studies from Wisconsin to Egypt have found that shared leadership models improve motivation and self-efficacy by empowering bedside nurses and bringing them into higher-level decision making.

Magnet hospitals across the country practice shared governance, and the nurses taking on that responsibility in Jackson see its potential.

“Having our nursing leaders be the ones that are bringing decisions to our administrative team, on a level playing field, I think that’s going to make a massive difference for the organization,” Chiappa said.

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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