Nurse selected for prestigious fellowship

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— Sue Birch, R.N. of Steamboat Springs, has a vision for the nation's current health-care system in which people receive more cost-effective and beneficial service.

As the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, Birch works on that vision every day.

The Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellowship she was recently awarded could better equip her for addressing the changes that she says the health-care system requires.

Birch, 41, is one of only 20 nurses nationwide who were selected this year to participate in the three-year program. The program will help Birch connect with other health-care professionals who are working on the health-care system and will also give her a $30,000 grant for a project at the Visiting Nurse Association.

Birch does not yet have details on what her leadership project would be, but she said it would focus on assisting vulnerable populations in the community.

"I believe that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is trying to develop a critical leadership mass in the United States to totally revamp the U.S. health-care system," Birch said about the program.

From Birch's range of experience, it looks as if she is already acting as one of the leaders who will be critical in creating change.

Birch has worked for more than 20 years in progressive health-care administration, with a focus on community health, home care and outpatient services. Since 1994, she has worked as the executive director of the region's Visiting Nurse Association, which serves more than half of the residents in the region with a $2.5 million operating budget.

Birch is on several governor-appointed committees, such as the Statewide Task Force on Long Term Care, the Caring for Colorado Foundation's Community Advisory Committee and the 14th Judicial District Nominations Commission.

She has also found time to raise three children with her husband, Dan.

But her duties don't seem like work, she said, because they allow her to follow her passion for improving health care.

Birch said she always knew she wanted to be a nurse. After receiving her nursing degree and then her M.B.A. from the University of Colorado, she found herself even more intrigued by the health-care system and its business side.

Her devotion to health-care issues has brought her national recognition, and Gary Haberlan, the president of the Board of Directors for Northwest Colorado's Visiting Nurse Association, said Birch's new fellowship could help give her an even larger role in health-care decisions.

"We're hopeful that with Sue's experience and with this fellowship to help her along the way that her voice will be heard even more than it already is," Haberlan said. "This fellowship (could) potentially facilitate her credibility in that national arena and could end up having a very positive impact on the delivery of home health care, in rural areas especially."

In Birch's opinion, the central problems with the current health-care system are that there are too many regulations that take up valuable time and there is not enough funding.

The key ways to mend the system include addressing health issues before they become a problem and focusing on common-sense treatments that aren't necessarily the high-tech ones, Birch said.

For example, an unwanted pregnancy can cost society about $25,000 because of prenatal care and other human services, Birch said. But if women have access to more basic and cost-effective services, such as a family planning clinic, some of these unwanted pregnancies could be prevented.

"The whole notion is how do we create proactive programs to help people become more informed about healthy choices," Birch said.

She said that some projections say that over the next few decades, about 20 percent of the nation's GDP could go toward health care.

"I contend that advancing nursing leadership and commonsensical, community applications will be pivotal in how we keep the spending down," Birch said. "We have a duty to try to change (the health-care system) and if we don't attempt to change it, the system will absolutely implode."

These sorts of changes will require work from a lot of experienced health-care professionals and other members of the public. Birch said she thinks the fellowship program will give her additional skills and knowledge to advance nursing leadership, as well as the connections and experiences to make large-scale changes in the health-care system.

Despite her varied experience, Birch said she was surprised to receive the award.

"I was sitting in this room with some of the foremost leaders in the country," she said when describing the interview process, "thinking, 'I can't believe I'm sitting with some of these people representing our little region."

Something that might have impressed the judges was Birch's determination. When the judges asked her what she would do if she didn't receive the award, she simply said that she would keep on applying until she did receive it.

Birch said she tries to bring that same determination, along with a positive attitude, to her health-care work.

"Every day I get frustrated, but every day provides a unique opportunity to look at what we can do about it," Birch said. "I'm a really optimistic and hard-headed person, so nothing slows me down."

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