Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Practice, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing
Bonnie Pilon never really thought twice about her career path. "By the time I was in high school, I knew that a healthcare career was the right choice. I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to work in a large system … to be part of a larger enterprise focused on a common goal to make a difference; and I was keenly interested in biological sciences by then," she recalled.
She chose nursing for its unique combination of science and caring. Over the years, Pilon moved into increasing levels of nurse leadership and credits several role models along the way. "My most significant mentor was a nurse leader named Yvonne Munn. She had an incredible way of raising the bar for higher levels of performance than I thought I could ever achieve … but did. After a couple of years working with her, I began to appreciate her ability to somehow set expectations high for her direct reports and then give us the tools to achieve those goals. I came to understand that lowering expectations, even in very difficult circumstances, serves no good purpose in the end. Aiming for excellence is always the only choice, particularly in healthcare."
In her position with Vanderbilt School of Nursing, Pilon develops and manages curriculum, teaches master's and doctoral level students and evaluates faculty. A large portion of her job, however, is centered on developing and managing faculty practices. Currently, Pilon oversees approximately 180 advanced practice faculty nurses disseminated throughout Vanderbilt and the community.
It is the community mission that truly motivates Pilon as Vanderbilt reaches out to the disenfranchised. "There are two constant challenges. First, our work is almost exclusively with vulnerable populations — patients and families who are disadvantaged in every way possible," she said. "We struggle to find resources to care for them every day." Pilon is hopeful healthcare reform will flow badly needed dollars into the Community Health Center setting. "We think that will help stabilize the financial underpinnings."
She continued, "The second challenge is one that frankly saddens and disappoints me. There are continuous attempts by organized medicine to impede the full scope practice of advanced practice nurses." While the individual physicians with whom her nurses work are outstanding colleagues, Pilon is frustrated … and insulted … by organized attempts to scale back the care provided by APNs. "Every year nursing must fight in the Legislature to stop further encroachment of our ability to offer exemplary care to patients."
Instead of wasting precious resources, she said it would be much more efficient to allow providers to maximize their skill sets. "Then you've got the right provider at the right time providing the right care in an economically feasible model."
Pilon is excited about the promise of healthcare reform. "The year 2014 cannot arrive soon enough for me. Our patients are so needy, and the recent reform legislation will benefit 90 percent of them by giving them access to either Medicaid or insurance via the exchanges. Over the past 20 years in Nashville, I have come to understand the price that the patient and our society pay when access is denied. We all pay when prevention is not an affordable option."
Her own personal form of preventative medicine is to relax and unwind with her family — husband Rick Smith, and their two adult children, Patrick, 26, and Jennifer, 29. Pilon loves to travel and hopes she and Rick will have time to explore new places in the coming years.
"I think I need to work on a plan to ease into retirement at some point," she noted. The many who benefit from her leadership hope that time doesn't come too soon.