'100 nurses in 100 days': CNO Kristin Wolkart's creative plans for FMOL Health System's nursing workforce

Kristin Wolkart, RN, has spent much of the past year doing what she loves — learning.

After spending the past two decades in various leadership roles at Baton Rouge, La.-based Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, Ms. Wolkart was tapped to serve as the system's inaugural executive vice president and chief nursing officer in May 2022. 

"I've enjoyed being able to broaden my knowledge and skillset to understand what it's like in different environments across our health system," she told Becker's.

Ms. Wolkart first joined FMOL Health System in 2000 when the system acquired St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales, La., and she stepped into a department director role over the emergency room and intensive care unit. In 2007, she became chief nursing informatics officer of the health system and, in 2014, was tapped to serve as COO of St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe, La., before being named CEO a year later. 

Ms. Wolkart recently spoke with Becker's about her first year in her new CNO role, the health system's plans to launch an in-house staffing agency and the importance of finding joyfulness in work.

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

Question: What piqued your interest in the nursing or healthcare profession?

Kristin Wolkart: One summer, I was about 16 years old and my aunt asked me to come spend the summer with her. She was in nursing school and she just wanted me to be there to watch her three young kids during the day. In the evening, after the kids would go to bed, she asked me to help her study. She was so excited and passionate and had so much love for nursing. I always knew I wanted to be in the medical field, but I hadn't really narrowed it down to becoming a nurse until that summer. Her excitement and her passion and letting me be a part of her studies — that's really what lit the spark for me.

Q: I know we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of your CNO appointment. What has been the most important leadership lesson you've learned in the past year? 

KW: My entire nursing career has been in the state of Louisiana, so what I've learned the most is that different states have different rules and different personalities when it comes to nursing. Over the course of the last year, I've been forging relationships with each of the chief nursing officers across all of our markets and their senior nursing leadership teams. We've created a model of shared learnings and shared best practices. I've enjoyed being able to broaden my knowledge and skillset to understand what it's like in different environments across our health system. We're very similar but yet we all have unique issues, unique opportunities and challenges.

Q: What are you most excited about right now?

KW: We're standing up our own internal agency. One of the biggest expenses as a health system that we've experienced since COVID-19 was the rise of contract labor. We're thankful to have them in times of shortage, but they're not committed to our organization. So how can we take the middleman of that external agency out of the picture, and have team members that want to work in that contract mind frame? They don't want to necessarily have a full-time job. They want to be able to pick up contracts as the needs for their personal life fit in that model of staffing. We're starting with nursing, but it will be an agency for all needs for contract-type labor across two states. That project went live at the end of March, and our first orientation class will be June 4. Our goal is to hire 100 nurses in 100 days to our agency, so that we don't have to rely on external contract labor. And that is just a phenomenal program, and I'm so excited about the future and what it may hold. 

Q: How else are you striving to offer nurses and other clinicians more flexibility?

KW: We are dusting off all kinds of different flexible options. How can we create not just staffing models but options for nurses and other caregivers so that we become the employer of choice because we've created flexible models? Some folks don't want the benefits package, so how can we offer a full-time no-benefits option? How can we have float pools where people don't necessarily always want to work in the same unit every day, where they want to be able to have that flexibility to experience different types of nursing care? How can we offer growth opportunities? We're giving our certified nursing assistants or medical assistants a career path to become an LPN or RN through contracts and programs with local community colleges and our own university. 

We also have some mature nurses doing virtual nursing, so they're taking care of patients over a camera setup to help the more novice nurse at the bedside have that real-time expertise at the touch of a button. But the patient also has the added benefit of a highly experienced nurse continuously monitoring them. So creativity in models of care and use of technology and growth in development and scheduling options. We have changed the way we practice certainly inside the hospital and continue to change and grow and create new programs to try to meet the needs of our team members, our future employees and our patients.

Q: What has changed the most about nursing since 1995, and what still needs to change?

KW: When I graduated in 1991, everything was on paper — computers were just starting to come into hospitals, but not for documentation. It's been interesting to see how technology has enhanced and hindered bedside care. It provides us with so much more information and can help us take better care of our patients, but it's also intrusive and sometimes can be a barrier between the patient and the provider if we're too focused on documenting things in the computer and not providing hands-on high-touch care, so it's a blessing and a curse. It's an iterative process of how much is too much? What do we mandate? What do we not mandate? How can we use the technology to be an enhancement and help, rather than be a burden? So it is a journey, and I'd say that's the biggest change I've seen over my career. 

Q: If you could pass along a piece of advice to new hospital nursing leaders, what would it be?

KW: Listen more than you speak. Listen to the voice of the bedside caregivers about what they truly need. And do your best to follow through or follow up. Sometimes we can't meet every request, but instead of saying no, try to find ways to meet the need, maybe differently than what they've asked for. The staff at the bedside know what works and what doesn't work, and they are our best voice to help guide us into the future

The only other thing that I would say has made me successful in my career is one of our core values at FMOL Health System, and that is joyfulness of spirit. COVID-19 took us away from doing some of those things that allowed us to connect human-to-human as team members or with our patients.

I'm looking forward to Nurses Week where we're going to have celebrations across each of our markets. We're gonna celebrate our nurses and all of our nursing caregivers and try to do it in a way that truly shows that appreciation with our work family. So getting back to taking care of each other in a meaningful way — live and in-person — and less reliance on email and texting.

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