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A Beacon of Excellence

Nurses Victoria Lutz and Tabitha Eckert turn a patient lying in a hospital bed. The patient is wearing a hospital gown and has monitor wires on his chest.

Nurse Victoria Lutz, left, and Tabitha Eckert, right, work with a patient in the Surgical and Anesthesia Intensive Care Unit at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

It takes heart, soul, perseverance and empathy to care for critically ill patients. The nurses in the Surgical Anesthesia Intensive Care Unit (SAICU) at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center have been honored for those qualities by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). The Silver-level Beacon Award for Excellence recognizes critical care units for exceptional patient care and healthy work environments.

See photos of the unit’s staff in action on the Medical Center’s Flickr page.

SAICU’s Beacon brings the total to four Beacon Awards for critical care units at the Medical Center, a significant accomplishment. The award is presented at three levels: gold, silver, and bronze. The AACN has presented 36 Beacons to critical care units in Pennsylvania since the award began in 2003. SAICU joins the Pediatric Intermediate Care Unit as a Silver Beacon Unit. The Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) and Heart and Vascular Progressive Care Unit obtained the Gold Beacon designation.

“What makes the Beacon Award so unique,” explains Judy Himes, senior vice president and chief nursing officer, “is how the application process is driven by the nursing staff.” Long and complex, the application takes many hours to complete and, “recognizes excellence for nursing care that results in positive patient outcomes.”

To win a Beacon, a hospital unit must meet the AACN’s defined criteria in six categories: Leadership Structures and Systems; Appropriate Staffing and Staff Engagement; Effective Communication, Knowledge Management and Learning Development; Evidence-Based Practice and Processes; and Outcome Measurements.

Kimberly Benson and Maggey Moser, both SAICU staff nurses, labored for six months amid their regular duties to complete the winning application, collecting data and other information to identify the processes and outcomes judged by the award.

“The award gives us an opportunity to share all the great things we do in our unit and give our staff the recognition they deserve,” Benson said. “I think it’s important to showcase the excellent nursing care that the Medical Center provides.”

The process of completing the application offered other benefits as well. “It helps improve patient care and the hospital environment by letting us review what we are currently doing, and then receive feedback from the Beacon committee on how we can make our unit even better,” Benson explained.

Abby Rudy, vice president of adult critical care nursing, supported the nurses in the MICU in their work to earn a Gold-level Beacon, the first unit at the Medical Center to attain this honor. “I cannot emphasize enough how the work that staff nurses do every day makes all the difference in the lives of our patients and our outcomes and how it shapes our work environment. I am proud to work with nurses who are empathetic, empowered and dedicated to this selfless profession. The Beacon Award is one way we can recognize outstanding nursing units with exceptional nurses.”

Nurses usually find “bragging” about their work challenging. But, Rudy says, Beacon applicants realize how helpful the process is. “It quantifies the impact on patients.

“The Beacon Award is so amazing,” Rudy notes, “because it recognizes the tireless work and care bedside nurses provide to their patients and each other 24/7/365. It also improves care by prompting us to analyze what we do in each of the categories and consider how to improve. Feedback from the AACN helps staff examine areas they may not have considered and helps the entire team grow.”

Physical Therapist Andrea Bearnger and nurse Angela Zimmerman lean over and smile at an elderly patient lying in a hospital bed. A monitor is visible above their heads.

Physical Therapist Andrea Bearnger, left, and nurse Angela Zimmerman smile with a patient in the Surgical and Anesthesia Intensive Care Unit.

Erin Sarsfield, a clinical nurse specialist in critical care at the Medical Center, sees the Beacon Award from both the perspective of a critical care nurse and of a reviewer of Beacon Award submissions. Since 2015, she has reviewed about 30 applications, and each review can take her as few as eight but as long as 20 hours to complete.

“I have reviewed applications mostly from the U.S., but I did review one from Saudi Arabia. It was fascinating to me that they shared similar challenges and experiences that most units have.”

AACN President Clareen Wiencek, an associate professor of nursing at University of Virginia School of Nursing and program director of advanced practice, praises the exemplary efforts of the unit caregivers who achieve the Beacon Award for Excellence. “The caregivers in these units are health care professionals committed to the best in patient care. The continued growth of the Beacon Award program shows the commitment of caregivers and their hospitals to work together to achieve healthy work environments that support excellent care of patients and their families.”

This year’s Beacon winners will be honored at the National Teaching Institute & Critical Care Exposition in Boston, May 21-24. Meanwhile, at Hershey Medical Center, the entire SAICU staff is planning a party for each shift to celebrate becoming a Beacon of excellence.

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