Hail to the Chief Nursing Officer

Kristen Smith Talks About Her Plans for BayCare Polk and Why Nurses Are Indispensable


BayCare Polk County’s new Chief Nursing Officer, Kristen Smith, MSN, RN, didn’t always know she wanted to be in health care. She studied marketing and communications in college and pursued a career in that vocation for seven years, but she soon realized something was missing. While she found her work enjoyable, it lacked the element of personal fulfillment that she sought.

In 2005, Smith had an experience that laid open a new option for her career path. Her aunt, who was a nurse at the time, required open-heart surgery and then suffered from complications that extended her stay in the hospital afterward by several weeks. Smith stepped up to assist her aunt during her recuperation, offering care that would end up being life-changing for both of them. 

“I was just fascinated by everything going on around me when I was in her hospital room,” Smith recalls. “I was always asking a lot of questions of the nursing team. One day, I was in there helping her get from the bed to the chair, and one of the nurse practitioners came in and said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a nurse? Because you’re really good at taking care of people and you’re asking all the right questions. It just seems like something you’d be really good at.’”

Smith left that interaction with a lot to think about. For the next week, she reflected on the nurse’s words. Her bachelor’s degree in marketing left her lacking several critical science classes before she could enter a nursing program. Undeterred, Smith soon registered for those classes and followed through to ultimately attain a bachelor’s degree in nursing from St. Petersburg College and then a master’s degree in nursing and healthcare leadership from Jacksonville University.

Smith stepped into her new role with BayCare in February after working most recently as the Director of Patient Services at St. Anthony’s Hospital, a BayCare Health System facility located in St. Petersburg. Prior to that, she had worked in trauma care, women’s health, and oncology units. Smith has been with BayCare for 11 years. 

As medicine is an evidence-based science, and the work often takes place in a fast-paced environment, adaptability is an essential skill for a nurse to possess, Smith says. She explains that she believes continuing education is an obligation for a nurse to keep up with the latest developments in medical processes, procedures, and equipment. Most nurses are lifelong learners, Smith says, and this rigorous, ongoing study must then be balanced with a healthy level of compassion and empathy for the patients, plus the ability to communicate effectively with other members of a medical team. 

“You have to be able to collaborate with a multidisciplinary team because you have to be able to work with physicians, you have to work with physical therapy, respiratory therapy, registered dieticians, and social workers,” Smith explains. 

While she may not be working in marketing and communications anymore, her communication skills definitely aren’t wasted. 

“You have to have strong communication skills,” she says. “Nurses are with the patient 24-7, so you’re the eyes and ears for all those other areas. You have to be able to communicate when you’re noticing changes. When things are going on, you have to be able to provide that feedback to physicians, and you need to do it in a way that they can understand and visualize what’s happening with the patient.”

During a month when Central Florida Health News is honoring the immeasurable impact nurses have in society, Smith explains what being a nurse means to her.

“I think being a nurse, you’re at the center of a patient’s healthcare journey. Nurses work tirelessly to care for the needs of their patients and the patients’ families. They’re providing highly specialized care with compassion and empathy. To me, nursing is like an art and a science, because you’re dealing and navigating with people when they are obviously not at their best, they’re receiving some pretty devastating diagnoses, and you have to navigate and work through that with them with care and compassion.”

Smith is committed to contributing to the success and unceasing improvement of Polk County’s Winter Haven, Winter Haven Women’s, and Bartow Hospitals. Her devotion to serving the community she now calls home is evident in the goals Smith has set forth to accomplish during her tenure as BayCare Polk’s Chief Nursing Officer. 

“I really want to make our BayCare hospitals a premier place to receive care in the Polk region,” Smith expresses. “I want to create a nursing team that’s highly functioning, delivering compassionate care, and helping to meet our community’s healthcare needs, whether that means having our team volunteer at cancer screenings out in the community, blood pressure screenings for hypertension, and so forth.” 


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