Cleveland Clinic's first chief caregiver officer on supporting 70,000 employees during crisis

Kelly Hancock, DNP, RN, became Cleveland Clinic's first chief caregiver officer June 19, bringing 27 years of experience at the organization. 

Most recently, Dr. Hancock was executive chief nursing officer of Cleveland Clinic Health System and chief nursing officer of its main campus.

She now is the executive leader of human resources, overseeing 70,000 U.S. and international employees. She is also responsible for Cleveland Clinic's Stanley Shalom Zielony Institute for Nursing Excellence, which oversees the practice and education of about 28,000 nursing caregivers.

Dr. Hancock received her DNP from Chamberlain College of Nursing in Downers Grove, Ill., and a master's degree in nursing from Breen School of Nursing at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. 

She told Becker's Hospital Review she is excited about the opportunities she has in the newly created role and shared her top priorities for her first year., She also discussed her greatest challenge amid the COVID-19 pandemic and offered some advice for colleagues.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What has you most excited about your new role as chief caregiver officer?

Dr. Kelly Hancock: I believe we have a great culture and organization, so what excites me is partnering with all 70,000 caregivers both domestically and internationally to make this an even better organization to work at. I am excited as it relates to the opportunities around our caregivers. This role is the first of its kind at Cleveland Clinic, and I think it is unique. 

When I think about the vision for this role, it is to focus on enhancing our unique team-based culture Cleveland Clinic is known for and fostering that further by providing strategic direction from this office as it relates to certain human resources functions. It's exciting to think about the possibilities, and I think it's a credit to CEO Tom Mihaljevic, MD, and his vision. I liken it to about 10 years ago when the organization had its first chief patient experience officer. At the time, that was a statement that a healthcare organization cared so much about the experience of our patients that they are dedicating someone at the helm of it, as well as an overall office for that. When you think about the first chief caregiver officer, it is a similar approach. Tom and the organization think so highly of one of its greatest assets — caregivers — that they are dedicating somebody to lead this and an office that will support it. 

Q: What are a few of your top priorities for this year?

KH: I think about caregiver wellness and resiliency as top of mind across the board. Our organization already has well-established practices and strategies to support our caregivers, particularly in the time of COVID-19. But we know, moving forward, we have to partner with employees to see what else we need to put in place to support them so they can be their true self when they come to work and their fullest to care for patients appropriately. That is one of the first things we look forward to. Looking at the wellness and resiliency piece, we know it is different for different caregivers, yet there are some commonalities. When we think about burnout and what we need to mitigate that and thinking very proactively about wellness for our caregivers beyond traditional wellness programs, there is a lot of opportunity there that can be tapped into to provide a stronger strategy to support that culture for the caregivers. 

Q: What is the greatest challenge you are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

KH: Keeping our caregivers resilient. I have been inspired over these past few months, mostly by our caregivers. Their dedication and commitment to the organization, our patients and one another has been extraordinary. But with that comes a cost. I think what this pandemic has caused for all of us is anxiety, not knowing what will happen. On their emotional well-being, I imagine that has taken its toll. From an organizational standpoint, I think our caregivers would tell you they feel very supported. Recently we conducted a survey that measures their engagement. We kept it brief and decided to administer it during COVID-19 because we wanted to understand how we could better support them during these times. Some good news: We had a high participation rate. In my opinion, the first step in engagement is participation. The second thing I would share is the overall sense from our caregivers about communication — particularly from our executive leadership — was at an all-time high. When you think about what matters most to our caregivers, what they value the most is open, honest, transparent communication. To take what we've learned during COVID-19 and see how we can apply the strategies to take us to the next level post-COVID I think will be extremely powerful, and fostering the culture we want to continue to build at our organization. 

Q: Staffing has been a big concern at hospitals across the country as they prepare for COVID-19 patients. With respect to nursing, what does your staffing preparation look like at Cleveland Clinic?

KH: We had no idea when the year opened that this was ahead of us. With that said, we always were in a state of readiness as it relates to preparing for any internal or external disaster. The pandemic tested our exercise in that. Early on, based on predictive modeling, we were able to look at current resources as it relates to nursing and identify how many types of nurses we need. For example, if we had a surge with COVID-positive patients on the medicine side, we were able to look at our resources in the nursing department and identify where we still had opportunities. 

Our nursing organization has about 15,000 registered nurses, and we were able to provide some education to be in that state of readiness if we needed more medicine nurses or ICU nurses. Luckily, we never experienced surges some of our colleagues saw at the time in New York City and Detroit. We were so prepared at that time. As we sat by and watched on the news what was happening to our colleagues and reached out to them, we were able to send volunteer nurses to New York City and Henry Ford Health System in Detroit to help because at the time we didn't experience the surge. 

Today, I am feeling comfortable with the amount of nursing staff we have. 

Q: If you could pass along a piece of pandemic advice to other nurses and nursing executives, what would it be?

KH: Update your practices and policies to ensure you keep hospitals safe for caregivers and limit the spread of the virus. Then, of course, make sure we provide the care we need to for our patients. Also, I would be present. Communicating in real time with transparency is the safety way to manage this situation.  Early on in the pandemic, things were changing on a daily basis, so it was especially important for caregivers to be made aware of steps and actions being taken by their leadership team to remedy issues and maintain safety for themselves and patients.


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