Duke - The Fuqua School of Business

Feature Story

Connecting Disciplines: MBA is Right Prescription for RN

Business skills helped propel Sylvia Alston (Weekend Executive '96) to her position as Associate Chief Nursing Officer at Duke.

Sylvia Alston, Weekend Executive MBA '96
Sylvia Alston
December 30, 2009

By Elizabeth Michalka — This article was originally published in the alumni magazine Team Fuqua.

Early in her nursing career, Sylvia Alston realized that while patient care always comes first, hospital administrators must also understand the bottom line.

“Essentially, health care is a big business,” Alston said. “Very few nurses go to business school, but I thought it was important for me to have both a clinical and a business background because I wanted a career in management.”

Although she’d already earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in nursing, Alston enrolled in Fuqua’s Weekend Executive MBA program with a concentration in Health Sector Management, which she completed in 1996.

She has held various nursing management and leadership positions within the Duke University Health System during the past 28 years, and in 2006 she was promoted to Associate Chief Nursing Officer. She cites her business acumen as vitally important to helping attain her current position.

Alston consistently applies her MBA education at work, particularly in relation to process improvement in nurse recruitment. In 2006, for example, she helped consolidate Duke’s three nurse recruitment divisions into one, which she still leads. Previously, each hospital — Duke
University Hospital
, Durham Regional Hospital, and Duke Raleigh Hospital — had separate nurse recruitment divisions.

The centralization led to big dividends for Duke. Alston says that by decreasing competition between the hospitals, and taking a more unified approach, the pool of nursing candidates increased. In only three years, successful hires increased by 60 percent while the cost per hire decreased by more than half. This has contributed to a lower vacancy rate, which also helps improve staff and patient satisfaction.

“That has been one of my biggest accomplishments, and I attribute a lot of its success — and the success of other projects — to my education at Fuqua,” Alston notes. “Fuqua really prepared me for the variety of tasks and roles I’ve held within Duke Medicine.”

Alston adds that she is still learning from Fuqua. For the past two years, she has worked with MBA students serving as business consultants through an independent study program jointly coordinated by Fuqua’s Health Sector Management program and Duke University Hospital. As project sponsor, Alston spends 12 to 14 weeks supervising an MBA student. She said she enjoys working with the students because they bring new ideas to the table, and she is happy to participate in the program because it’s a way of giving back to Fuqua.

“I’ve been very impressed by the students’ expertise and the quality of the final projects they complete,” Alston said.

She is so pleased with her interactions with current MBA students that she encourages some of her colleagues to consider business school. As the management of health care continues to evolve to meet rapidly changing needs, more nurses may pursue an MBA — some as a direct result of speaking with Alston.