Fairfield Medical Center's Deb Palmer empowers staff with continued education
If someone had to describe Deb Palmer,Columbus CEO's 2022 Healthcare Achievement Awards Lifetime Achievement winner, she assumes they would start with, “She asks a million questions.” And they would be right—she knows a simple question can change the trajectory of someone’s life. After all, she’s living proof of it.
Palmer was working as a direct care provider at Adena Health System when she asked her big question, but at the time it didn’t feel that way. It was her first nursing job following her graduation from University of Cincinnati’s nursing program in 1976 and she couldn’t help but notice that at Adena, nursing was the only sector that had a formal education department, not to mention there had been three education directors in the past three years.
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“I said to the director of nursing, ‘Good God, can’t we find someone to do this job? Even I could do that job,’” Palmer says. “She said, ‘Well congratulations, you can have it.’”
She wasn’t kidding.
So Palmer figured it out. Her next role was director of workplace learning and performance, where she led a team of clinical and non-clinical educators to provide continuous learning opportunities and ensure the staff always had room to grow, regardless of position. She also implemented several assessments meant to show opportunities for growth.
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And after 31 years of Adena, Palmer retired in 2007. But it wasn’t long before she got the call from Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster. The health system needed help—the training and education department was decentralized, and the results weren’t what they hoped for. They needed someone who could restructure the department and produce results. Palmer fit the bill.
Palmer initially wasn’t sure about returning to work but would later be swayed to join the staff as a part-time manager of leadership and career development in 2008. Her first task was to complete a 90-day assessment of the entire hospital staff to identify unmet needs. She started with basic but often overlooked questions.
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“When I met with every one of them I said, ‘Okay, do you really like what you’re doing? And what do you want to be doing?’ I would say three quarters of them looked at me like I had horns growing out of my head,” Palmer says.
The assessment led to a lot of reshuffling—new positions were created and team members moved to roles that better suited their skillset. But Palmer kept asking questions, wondering what the staff wanted to learn, what would make them enjoy their careers more and what pain points they had.
Eventually her part-time involvement began to shift to include more responsibilities. In 2011 she became the director of talent development and in 2015 she added an additional title as corporate compliance officer. That same year, her role changed to chief human resources officer and corporate compliance officer. In 2020, she reduced herself to part-time and became vice president of administrative services.
Over 13 years, Palmer championed new programs and ideas that would benefit the staff. Some include:
• Introducing the team to strengths finder assessments to identify areas for growth.
• Overseeing the implementation of a new human resource information system and learning management and staffing/scheduling system, which brought electronic pay stubs.
• Implementing new staff development programs including School at Work, an ongoing education program, Preceptor Academy, a mentorship program, and FMC Strides, a pre-leadership voluntary program that teaches finance and operations.
• Creating the position of TEMPO (Together Everyone Manages Patient Outcomes) Education Coordinator to train and support staff through information technology changes.
• Bringing in-person nursing instruction in from Xavier University, Otterbein University and Ohio Christian University, eliminating the need for students to travel to Columbus to complete their nursing degrees.
While many of Palmer’s contributions have been behind the scenes, it’s no challenge to see her dedication.
“Deb Palmer has touched—and seemingly improved—so many different aspects of health care, from the frontline care to administrative duties to leadership roles,” a Columbus CEO Healthcare Achievement Awards judge wrote. “The results hit on so many areas in helping her institution improve. That wide range of impact sets her apart.”
And after almost half a century of working in health care, Palmer finally got the chance to retire (again) in 2021 from Fairfield Medical, but still serves as a contracted employee.
As she reflects on her experiences in human resources, though, she notes that none of her success would have been possible without her nursing
education that got her there in the first place, which showed her from the very beginning the importance of asking a question.
“I never really stopped nursing, I used those skills every day regardless of what job I was doing,” Palmer says. “Because it’s about applying that nursing process, listening to the person you’re dealing with, whether it’s a patient or employee… I never quit being a nurse, my patient just changed.”
Jess Deyo is associate editor.
Former chief human resources officer, corporate compliance officer and vice president of administrative services, Fairfield Medical Center
Experience: Deb Palmer spent 31 years at Adena Health System and 13 years at Fairfrield Medical Center, most recently as Vice President of Administrative Services.
Education: Bachelor of Science in nursing, University of Cincinnati; Master’s in administration and human resources, Central Michigan University
Community Involvement: Aside from her hospital duties, Palmer was an adjunct faculty at Ohio University’s Lancaster campus from 2010 to 2016. Before retiring from Fairfield Medical Center in 2021, she helped the hospital’s efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible against COVID-19.