Mass General’s new chief nurse shines light on the integral and expanding roles of the hospital’s nurses.

Debra Burke, RN, DNP, MBA, NEA-BC, has spent her entire career at Massachusetts General Hospital. She became chief nurse and senior vice president for Patient Care Services in January. She now oversees more than 5,000 nurses and other healthcare professionals who work with patients. In a recent interview, Dr. Burke talked about the evolving role of nurses and their integral role in providing skilled and compassionate care.

Debra Burke, RN, DNP, MBA, NEA-BC
Debra Burke, RN, DNP, MBA, NEA-BC

What are some of the biggest changes in nursing that you’ve witnessed during your career?

The role of nurses has expanded tremendously. Patient acuity — how ill patients are — has risen dramatically since I was a staff nurse. Patients are sicker, requiring more intensive care, which calls for a different skill set and educational preparation. That’s why we only hire nurses with at least a bachelor’s degree.

There are also more advanced practice nurses than there were years ago. We now have about 700 advanced practice nurses at Mass General, who work in a variety of settings, both inpatient and outpatient. They’ve become integral members of the healthcare team.

The number of doctorally prepared, DNP and PhD, nurses is at a record high. Those nurses are advancing nursing practice, research and education.

We need to acknowledge staff’s contributions and make sure they have a voice in their practice.

As you’ve gone around the hospital meeting with staff on your listening tour, what else has impressed you about nurses?

What stands out to me is how staff value teamwork. In virtually every setting at Mass General, teams of professionals come together to give patients the best possible care. They work together across disciplines to fund-raise, go the extra mile for patients and families, and support one another in times of illness. They even carry that teamwork around the world as critical members of our disaster response team.

What is your approach to keeping morale high?

This is my number one priority. Patient care is the most important part of our mission, but for me, the best way to ensure great care is to provide great support to nurses.

Caregiving is emotionally and physically demanding. We need to ensure adequate staffing. We need to acknowledge staff’s contributions and make sure they have a voice in their practice. And we need to provide appropriate resources to support their professional development.

Chief Nurse Debra Burke (back row, center) visits with staff at Mass General's Neurosciences Care Unit.
Chief Nurse Debra Burke (back row, center) visits with staff at Mass General’s Neurosciences Care Unit.

Staff need the autonomy to practice at the top of their licensure. Through satisfaction surveys and regular meetings with staff, I have opportunities to hear what staff are saying. It’s up to me and my leadership team to address the issues that are raised.

How does philanthropy help?

Donor support enables us to provide a number of professional development and educational opportunities.

Donor funding allowed us to offer grants to support innovative ideas to enhance patient care. One nurse, for example, through the IDEA Grant program, came up with an innovative way to help prevent patients from falling in the bathroom. Nurses are at the bedside 24/7. They’re in an excellent position to identify and help craft solutions to improve care.

Mass General has earned Magnet designation from the American Nursing Credentialing Center for the fourth time in a row. What does this mean for patients?

Magnet recognition is the highest honor a healthcare organization can receive for nursing excellence and quality patient care. Originally, it referred to hospitals that could attract and retain the best and brightest nurses (which is why it’s called ‘Magnet’). Over the years, evidence has shown that Magnet hospitals not only recruit and retain nurses, they also have better patient outcomes, such as fewer infections and higher patient satisfaction.

Being a Magnet hospital is like getting an A on a test. If you were a patient, wouldn’t you want to go the hospital that got the best grade on the test?

For more information on how you can support nursing excellence at Mass General, please contact us.