IU is always with me

By Jill Jansen

In Beth Taylor’s office at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) headquarters in Washington, DC, there’s an IU School of Nursing candy dish. Filled with peppermints, it’s just a candy dish, but ask Dr. Taylor about the role IU nursing has played in her career, and that dish symbolizes a whole lot more.

“IU is always with me,” says Dr. Taylor, who graduated with a BSN from IU in 1980. “It was a great foundation, and IU School of Nursing prepared me brilliantly.”

Dr. Taylor is the Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer for VHA. The first CNO to also serve as an Assistant Under Secretary, she leads a large section of the VHA’s national health system, which includes 18 national programs, one of which is nursing. Approximately 1,500 VHA employees report to her through the program offices, and as chief nursing officer, she’s responsible for the professional practice of a nursing corps that totals about 113,000 throughout 56 states and territories. In her current role, she oversees a VHA programs budget of more than $6 billion.

“It’s such a privilege to serve in this way, and the lessons I learned from IU School of Nursing are ones I remember to this day,” she says.

Growing up on a farm in Howard County, just west of Kokomo, Dr. Taylor remembers as an eighth grader watching her mother graduate from the nursing program at IU Kokomo. When she decided to follow in her mom’s footsteps and those of an aunt who also was a nurse, Dr. Taylor chose IU Bloomington where she spent the first three years before transferring to IUPUI in Indianapolis for clinicals.

“I think it was during our sophomore year, we were complaining that we hadn’t learned tasks like how to give shots,” Dr. Taylor recalls. “The faculty member who was teaching us at the time replied simply, ‘I’m teaching you how to think. If you only want to do tasks, then maybe you’re not in the right program.’”

The meaning of that exchange didn’t become fully clear until a couple of years later when Dr. Taylor was hired as a nursing house supervisor at a community hospital in Michigan.

“IU really prepared me to think, and it wasn’t until I got that first big job that I realized that professional nursing is all about critical thinking,” she says. “The value of nursing is really in the cognitive work. What you see nurses do—passing medications, starting an IV—those are all tasks and certainly important to be competent in completing, but the cognitive work associated with doing those is invisible. And that’s where nursing really brings value to patient outcomes and the healthcare industry.”

In 1996, after several years working as a nurse in the private sector, Dr. Taylor applied for a nurse executive position at the VHA hospital in Saginaw, Michigan. Over the next two decades, she held similar positions in VHA hospitals in Detroit, Milwaukee and Tucson, as well as completing special nursing leadership assignments in San Francisco and Phoenix.

“It [working at the VA] just got under my skin—serving those who have served our country is such an honor,” she explains.

In addition to the BSN she earned at IU, Dr. Taylor has an MBA from Saginaw Valley State University and a doctorate in health administration from Central Michigan University. She also holds a graduate certificate in International Health from CMU.

For someone who once thought she might like to be the CEO of a hospital, Dr. Taylor engages in similar visioning and strategic planning in her current role with VHA. The work she finds most rewarding is tackling complex issues with far-reaching consequences. She’s presently analyzing state licensure requirements with the aim of standardizing clinical practice across all geographies in which the VHA provides services. With the increased role of virtual care, she’s also engaged in long-term planning for the future of nursing at the VHA.

“It’s really exciting to think about how we’re influencing what nursing will look like for our organization and our industry in five, 10 or 20 years,” Dr. Taylor explains. “For all the pressures and challenges of this job, I know I’ll never again have a greater opportunity to shape thinking for the health care industry and for nursing than I do right now. It’s very rewarding.”