February 20, 2024

Vanessa Marlowe strives to create “caring connections” with patients and her colleagues

Marlowe recognized with VUMC Five Pillar Leader Award for her work

Vanessa Marlowe, senior director, Care Connections and Workforce Optimization. Photo by Erin O. Smith.

Vanessa Marlowe had just moved with her husband from Orlando, Florida, after accepting a leadership position in Patient Access Services (PAS) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, when she was confronted by two extraordinary challenges.

In the early morning of March 3, 2020, her second day on the job, a tornado packing winds over 125 miles per hour blasted through parts of Nashville, injuring dozens of people and leaving a wide swath of devastation in its wake.

Marlowe hit the ground running — overseeing an essential clinical support operation that ensured the injured and their families gained quick access to the hospital, while at the same time marshaling resources to help employees she hadn’t yet met and who had been in harm’s way.

Fifteen days later, in the face of a rapidly spreading pandemic, Marlowe began transitioning more than 300 of her employees to work from home, even as they helped launch a COVID-19 community hotline. Within a month, the hotline had logged 20,000 calls — more than 600 a day.

Since then, Marlowe has exemplified a sturdy commitment to patients and their families, employees, creative problem-solving, and grace under fire. For these qualities, she was honored by her peers with a Five Pillar Leader Award at the January VUMC Leadership Assembly.

“To be thought of so highly by my team, I am over the moon with joy,” said Marlowe, who is currently senior director of Care Connections, referral management, and workforce optimization for PAS. “I feel like I’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize!”

The Five Pillar Leader Award recognizes exceptional leaders who sustain a focus on VUMC’s credo and its five pillars of excellence: people, service, quality, growth and finance, and innovation.

Co-workers who nominated Marlowe for the award cited her continuing efforts to get to know and listen to them and how she is always looking for ways to improve the scope and cost-effectiveness of the services her group delivers to patients, providers and the clinical operation.

“We are the front door to Vanderbilt Health,” Marlowe explained. “People who call us are sick. They need us, and it is our responsibility to do what we can to help.”

The Care Connections team is responsible for connecting patients across the Vanderbilt Health “care continuum” so they receive the care they need. This includes scheduling appointments, escalating health concerns to the appropriate providers, connecting patients to clinical resources for advice and guidance, and helping them navigate complex situations.

Marlowe’s leadership duties also include the referral management team, which works to streamline the authorization process and increase access to care for referring providers and their patients, and workforce optimization, which applies the best technology to optimize forecasting and scheduling, and provide a consistent, predictable experience for PAS employees.

“I so appreciate her skill in building relationships and her flexibility as we deal with the change needed to build out tools and improve processes that help our patients navigate through their health care journey,” said her “one-up” leader, Jennifer DeBruler, MD, VUMC Vice President, Patient Access.

Marlowe, who has two adult daughters and five grandchildren, had worked in patient call/contact centers for more than 25 years before moving to Nashville. But the level of commitment she has encountered at VUMC is extraordinary. “It’s unwavering,” she said. “I’ve never had such a supportive group of colleagues.”

In March 2020, as her teammates were transitioning to working from home to prevent COVID-19 from spreading through the workforce, they also had to increase their Monday-through-Friday work schedule to seven days a week to handle the increased call volume from the hotline.

“Our team willingly obliged,” Marlowe said. “We did what we had to do … I am so grateful for the work they do. They have hard jobs … We support the patients. We support the clinicians. But my job, most importantly, is to support the team.”

To that end, Marlowe invited employees to get to know her, and each other, through group meetings in which participants were given packages containing a teacup and saucer, tea bag, muffin, and tea towel. Eventually, these “Tea with V” meetings evolved into what’s now called “Snack and Chat.”

“I still want to meet,” Marlowe said. “I still want to get to know you. You bring the snack, and I’ll bring the chat.”

Marlowe said her leadership philosophy is based on helping her employees grow and develop. That works both ways. “I tell my team consistently that they make me want to become a better leader,” she said.

In June 2021, the second year of the pandemic, Rick Wright, MD, MMHC, the Dan Spengler, MD Professor and chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, was named medical director for Patient Access Services.

“From the moment I accepted the role as PAS medical director, it has been apparent the devotion Vanessa has to serving our VUMC patients and the PAS employees,” said Wright, who subsequently was appointed chief medical officer and Senior Vice President for Clinical Affairs.

“She has been a great resource to me as I have taken on this role and has taught me so much about patient access issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, the challenges continue. The pandemic has left many people afraid and angry. “This is our new norm,” Marlowe said. “You have patients who call, and they’re visibly upset … We always want to continue to offer world-class service, no matter what.”

In nominating Marlowe for the Five Pillar Leader Award, access supervisor Lindsay Reenock wrote, “She leads strongly and fiercely by her wonderful example … (and) goes a million miles above and beyond her call of duty. Our beloved hospital would be LOST without this STELLAR leader at the helm …”

View Vanessa Marlowe’s video from Leadership Assembly here.

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.