Companies around the U.S. and world are navigating a re-think about work and learning as shifting expectations and technological leaps upend the status quo. In this episode, discover how trailblazing initiatives at one of Tennessee’s largest employers are reshaping the healthcare landscape while addressing societal and economic pressures.

Join guests from throughout Season 4 for Blazing a New Pathway: A Live Chat at 10:30 am CT on January 31 at

 ‘Blazing a New Pathway’ focuses on creative new training and outreach programs to bolster Allied Health and nursing professions

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Looking for local solutions to global questions

This episode explores how novel, collaborative training and education programs can help fill critical workforce shortages while promoting diversity in healthcare professions, job satisfaction, and overall workplace culture.

Peggy Valentine, EdD, vice president of Allied Health Education at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is building channels to find, train and support people who may want to work in health care but face time and money obstacles, such as rent and childcare. By working with Nashville State Community College and Tennessee State University, Valentine and her team are developing training programs that fill open Allied Health roles – such as surgical techs – at VUMC.

“This is a prime example of how these workforce development programs can move the needle on health disparities. Over 70% of those who’ve come through these programs thus far have been people of color. And when you look at the total workforce, not only here at VUMC, but around the nation, we know that people of color are less than 5% of many of these health professions, especially when we’re talking about Allied Health,” said Valentine. “And so it’s my hope that as we continue to prepare this diverse workforce in allied health, that we’ll be able to move the needle in a greater way when it comes to health disparities.”

In a first ever role at VUMC, Mamie Williams, PhD, MPH, MSN, FNP-BC, senior director of Nurse Diversity and Inclusion, talks about how essential it is to reach middle school and high school students with a variety of nursing role models – from LifeFlight to nursing informatics – to demonstrate the breadth of options within the field. She explains that for many students from communities who are historically underrepresented in healthcare and medicine, the idea of becoming a nurse is a far-fetched dream. Yet, with the nursing shortage set to worsen in the coming years, outreach is vital.

“We don’t have a bunch of nurses hiding anywhere. We have to go out into our [community] and expose students who have never been exposed to nursing before to the profession. It’s very important for nurses at all levels to understand that in order for us to have someone to come to replace us,” said Williams, who was the first in her family to graduate from college and become a nurse – inspiring several relatives including her mom to get on the nursing path.

Training and learning, working and living – these are symbiotic in communities, and VUMC’s President and CEO, Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, sees workforce recruitment and retention as one of the top priorities for the Medical Center. It’s about cultivating pathways allowing people to grow to stay interested and invested, he said.

“I think it’s fair to say that along those lines, healthcare has a workforce crisis, right? It’s in the news and it’s very real and we, like all healthcare systems, have had tremendous shortages in virtually every care area you can imagine. But what happens in times of crisis is we actually have to look hard at what’s really needed. We are no longer in a position where we can just sit back and people come. What is it that we can do at Vanderbilt that other places may not be able to do quite as well so we can attract the folks we need,” said Balser. “It’s a satisfaction strategy. It’s a happiness strategy.”

Valentine, Williams, and Kim Unertl, PhD, associate professor and Director of Graduate Studies with the Department of Biomedical Informatics, discuss how VUMC is being intentional on reaching more underrepresented groups in the medical and bioinformatics field, starting as early as middle school and high school.

Yet, there are challenges to reaching people who could be interested in joining a workforce cares for the country’s growing, changing population. From access to role models and navigating the education and training systems to financial obligations, many people don’t see a path for them.

Unertl talks about the funding gap the Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics Summer Program experiences for high school students, even though many teenagers pay for some of their own expenses or contribute to the family. Unertl’s colleague Daniel Fabbri, PhD, assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics, used proceeds from the sale of the company he founded, data privacy and analytics company Maize Analytics, to set up a fund to pay high school students. Anyone can donate to help keep the high school portion funded.

Tune in on your favorite platform: Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyStitcherPandora, and the Health Podcast Network. New episodes drop every week.

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More About Our Contributors

Dr. Jeff Balser

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., is president and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He also serves as dean of the medical center.

Dr. Kim Unertl

Kim M. Unertl, PhD, ACHIP, FACMI, FAMIA is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Department of Biomedical Informatics.

Dr. Peggy Valentine

Peggy Valentine, EdD is Vice President of Allied Health Education.

Mamie Williams, Ph.D.

Mamie Williams, Ph.D., M.P.H., A.P.R.N., serves as the senior director for nurse diversity and inclusion at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is a co-director and task force member of the Academy for Diverse Emerging Nurse Leaders at Vanderbilt School of Nursing, the executive sponsor of the VUMC Nurse Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee and co-chair of the VUMC Racial Equity Task Force.