September 13, 2023

Five Pillar Award recipient Gaye Smith on meetings, respect and one of her proudest accomplishments in 19 years at VUMC

“Respecting every human is essential to being a good human and a good manager.”

Gaye Smith poses for a photo in the Critical Care Tower atrium at Vanderbilt University Medical Center on Friday, July 28, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Gaye Smith. Photo by Erin O. Smith

Right out of high school, Gaye Smith thought an associate degree in Health Information Management (HIM) would be a good next step.

“I was 17. It sounded interesting. Why not give it a try?” said Smith, who was credentialled then as an accredited records technician. “Once I got into it, it just clicked. It’s always worked with the way I think, and I like the interaction of people, process and technology. You spend a lot of time with health care clinicians in information management, but also focus on policies, structures and rules and regulations. People sometimes struggle to interpret what they can or cannot do. I like helping them figure out how to get done what they need to get done and still be compliant.”

Smith, who was recruited to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2004 as the first Privacy Official — a position required by the new (at the time) HIPAA Privacy Rule — has led many teams in her 19 years, including the one that created the Patient and Family Promise.

“That is one of the accomplishments of which I’m most proud,” she said. “It was so rewarding to see how committed all levels at Vanderbilt were in creating that statement of focus on our patients and their families. And it’s genuine. It’s not something that got attention for six months then dropped away.”

Smith’s dedication to Vanderbilt is one of the many reasons her colleagues and peers nominated her for the Five Pillar Leader Award, which she received at the August 2023 Leadership Assembly. Smith will retire as chief administrative officer of the Center for Health Information Management and VUMC Privacy Official in October, but this award is no going-away gift. She earned it.

Of her dedication, one of Smith’s nominators said that calling her a hard worker “just doesn’t capture the dedication she has shown over the years. Gaye did not take a full week of vacation from one weekend through the next until the past several years. She has not missed one of the Information Privacy and Security meetings since before 2009!”

Smith’s knowledge of the technical ins and outs of Health Information is “savant like” to the point that many believe it will “take the hiring of three employees to replace her.”

One nominee pointed out that Smith has “reviewed, edited, retired and created many of VUMC’s current information management and medical record policies. She is considered an expert resource for all that is HIPAA and medical records. She has improved every department for which she has been responsible.”

Smith considers herself a “practical, common sense person,” and if she didn’t write the book on intentional leadership, she certainly could.

She describes her leadership style as collaborative. I much prefer to pull tiny work groups together to jointly think through something and get it done than sit by myself and create something and hand it to people. You get better results if you take the time to gather the input first.”

Her approach to meetings? “If you don’t have a solid reason to gather in a room together, don’t have a meeting. When you do have meetings, you need to have clear agendas. You need to have all the materials ready and available. Anticipate the questions that people will have. When you have purpose, things run better.”

Respect is key to the way she feels about those who work for her. “Respecting every human is essential to being a good human and a good manager. If you care about people, you care about them 24/7 — not just the eight hours they’re in the seat you’re paying them to sit in.”

Though her employees aren’t ready for her to retire, Smith says it’s time.

“I love my job; I’ve always loved my job, but you get to a place when you know it’s time to turn the reins over and let others take the leadership role,” she said. “Here’s my worst fear in life: getting to the place where people don’t feel like they can say positive things about you. I never want to have someone say, ‘She should’ve retired five years ago.’”

As a full-time worker and single parent, Smith didn’t have much time to develop outside interests of her own. She plans to find some hobbies, volunteer with children, and explore roles that don’t involve setting an alarm clock for a 7 a.m. meeting — though she will miss interacting with people at work.

I have been incredibly blessed to have worked with some really brilliant people,” Smith said. “In the time I’ve worked at Vanderbilt, rarely a day goes by when I don’t feel like I’ve learned something new. When you’re working with as many scientists, clinical folks and day-to-day managers running very detailed operations, you feel like you’re learning constantly. Believe me, I’ve worked in two other health systems — there’s a difference at Vanderbilt.”

If you are a VUMC employee, you can nominate a colleague for an Elevate Credo Award, Five Pillar Leader Award, or Team Award. Visit the Elevate website to fill out a nomination form. Employees demonstrate credo behaviors when: they make those they serve the highest priority; respect privacy and confidentiality; communicate effectively; conduct themselves professionally; have a sense of ownership; and are committed to their colleagues. Elevate award nominations are accepted year-round. If a nomination is received after the cut off for an award selection period, the nomination will be considered for the next period. VUMC VOICE will post stories on each of the award winners in the weeks following their announcement.