Bethune, a strong believer in education, says happy employees mean happy, healthy patients and strong financial bottom lines.

Newport News -- Golden Bethune knows what it's like to be on both sides of a hospital bed.

She started as the new administrator for Riverside Regional Medical Center in January, becoming the highest-ranking black woman in the hospital system's history. She has also stood by her husband, Vernon, as he's battled cancer of the bone marrow for the past 10 years. He's been admitted to Riverside twice in the past month.

Bethune said recognition and appreciation for the little things that employees do - such as bringing her ill husband homemade chicken soup when he wouldn't eat much else - ultimately results in happy employees, which means improved patient care and lower hospital expenses.

Golden Bethune, administrator of Riverside Regional Medical CenterQ: How old are you?

A: (Laughs) Why is that important? I don't have a problem with my age. I'm 50-plus.

Q: What unique perspectives do you bring to this job as a black woman?

A: I think of myself as a woman who is in administration. I have a passion for excellence. I can't say my predecessors didn't have that. I think our styles are very different in some ways, but in other ways very similar. They all had that same passion.

I am extremely driven, partly because of my mother, Dorothy McDaniel, who instilled in me that I could do anything in the world. The word "can't" is not in my vocabulary.

Q: Studies show that there are still disparities between blacks and whites in health care. What needs to be done about that?

A: I think people fear the system. There's a certain intimidation. They don't always understand that they can ask whatever questions they need answered. They don't always trust providers.

I do a lot of health fairs and speaking about health care issues. I certainly think we need to teach culturally sensitive issues to our staff and to make sure we're out there advising the public of their choices.

Q: Your husband has struggled with cancer for years and you've had to be a demanding health care consumer. What was that like?

A: My experiences have been phenomenal. Even in the negative experiences there are blessings. We've encountered some of the best doctors and nurses that you can find anywhere. Moving here was a challenge for me to think about changing doctors for him, but I have been super-impressed by the medical team and staff here.

Q: What do patients need most from their hospital?

A: They need open, honest answers about what's going on with their care.

I want patients to know that we care about them and we care about their families. Hospitals have to take care of people on a continuum. They need care from the ER back to their homes. We don't want to send people without the support there to care for them or they're going to be right back here. That's our care management team and social workers and connecting with families.

One of the staff had some homemade chicken soup and offered that to my husband while he was here because his appetite was terrible. He ate it. She didn't have to do that.

Q: What do employees need?

A: The first thing you do is get out there and talk with them and listen to what they have to say. They want their leaders to be visible. They want the tools they need to do their work. They also want to be told when they've done a good job.

Recognition, recognition, recognition is important to the staff.

Q: What kind of initiatives do you have in mind at the hospital?

A: If you improve the quality of what you do, you save cost. So I will have a major emphasis on improving the excellent quality we already have here. I also believe that if you take care of your employees, they'll take great care of your patients. Patient satisfaction, employee satisfaction, retention of our nurses and staff makes a difference.

Q: How do you reconcile patient and employee wants and needs with the hospital's bottom line?

A: In all of my career, which spans 35 years at this point, I've never found that patients and staff ever ask for anything outrageous or expensive. Patients want individualized care. Employees want recognition. We have to pay competitive wages.

The cost of replacing a nurse is $60,000. Think about 10 nurses leaving your place at those prices.

Q: Competition between hospitals is fierce in Hampton Roads. How do you beat the competition?

A: Competition is healthy. It makes you stay on your toes. One of the things we have to do at Riverside Regional is to make sure that we have the best environment for people to work in. The other key to competition is emphasizing quality.

Q: Why should patients come to Riverside?

A: Riverside has the best employees. It's your one-stop shop for cardiac needs and cancer needs. We have so many services to offer at the tertiary care level. We do it all.

Q: You come from a family that values education. Why is education important to you?

A: My mother was an education fanatic. She was valedictorian of her high school class. She didn't go to college herself, but she made sure my sister and I went. I never stop learning. I don't think you can ever learn enough.

Q: You got started at Riverside in nursing. Are you glad to be back?

A: It's wonderful to be home. My best friend from first grade lives right around the corner. Friends we haven't seen in 20 years have come to see Vernon. It's been wonderful. My mom died here when she was 83. Mom always loved Riverside. My sister and I joke that she's up there meddling and that's why I'm here now.

Published: February 2, 2006