by Matt Batcheldor
Karen Hughart, MSN, RN, senior director of Nursing Informatics, is retiring at the end of July after 45 years at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Hughart, a longtime informatics expert who leads a department that manages nursing systems throughout VUMC, was instrumental in the rollout of Epic clinical systems in recent years. But her full-time informatics specialization was actually a second career, happening after two decades as a pediatric nurse.
Hughart said she wanted to be a nurse since she was 16 years old, when she worked for a camp for disabled children in Kansas City.
After graduating from Murray State University in 1977 she started on S-3400 of the Round Wing, which was then the children’s wing of the main Vanderbilt University Hospital, in the building that is now Medical Center North.
“I did my college work in all these small community hospitals, so being in this big, complex medical center where you got to see all these different things was just very exciting,” she said.
Her transition from bedside nurse to Nursing Informatics expert was a product of happenstance. The predecessor of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt had just acquired new computers, and “we didn’t know how to use those computers,” Hughart said. As it happened, Hughart was in graduate school at Vanderbilt University, and her practicum project was to write a how-to-manual and present recommendations to a nursing executive group.
The day Hughart was on the agenda to address the group was also on the day the group was appointing four nurses to a committee that would select the first hospital information system.
“And I just happened to be there, and they said, ‘well, Karen knows about computers, let’s put herion the group.’ And so, it all grew out of that,” she said. “I always tell people it’s about being at the right place at the right time.”
For a time, Hughart worked partly in pediatrics, partly in informatics, until the late 1990s, when she transitioned to full-time informatics work.
When Hughart started at Vanderbilt, patient records were all on paper. She oversaw the transition to electronic records, first using systems that were developed in-house at Vanderbilt, then to today’s vendor-based systems such as Epic. Her department supports many other systems.
“I think the average nurse uses something like 25 pieces of technology every day, just in a non-ICU unit,” Hughart said. “If they’re in an ICU, they use more pieces than that. So, it takes a lot of thoughtful effort to try to make sure that we are serving up technology in a way that’s going to be efficient for the nurse and safe for the patient.”
Recently, Hughart said she is proud of Nursing Informatics’ effort to create disaster-mode documentation standards during the COVID-19 pandemic. The standards allow nurses to reduce documentation requirements during crisis situations, allowing them to focus on the most important documentation and save time for patient care. Hospitals around the country have adopted Vanderbilt’s standards, as have Epic customers.
“I’m very proud of the team,” she said. “We have a lot of certified, mostly masters-prepared nursing informatics specialists on the team. We’ve done a lot of work over the years to develop their expertise and the services that we provide.”
Hughart said she looks forward to traveling more after retirement; she already has trips planned to Europe and the Caribbean. But she will also do part-time consulting work for Health IT, with less responsibility and more flexibility.
Executive Chief Nursing Officer Marilyn Dubree, MSN, RN, NE-BC, said Hughart will be greatly missed.
“Karen has developed unmatched expertise in her many years of leading our Nursing Informatics efforts,” she said. “It has been my pleasure to work with her on many projects throughout our enterprise, always with the goal of providing better care for our patients and families. I wish her the very best.”