"Intentional facilitation" leads to resiliency at Vanderbilt

“When you’re in a pandemic situation, it’s easy to fall into a siloed practice. My role is to be intentional about facilitating conversations among the different groups, and to make sure as a departmental enterprise that we’re all pulling in the same direction on behalf of our patients.”

Mark Sullivan
PharmD, MBA, BCPS, FASHP; Associate Chief Pharmacy Officer, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN

It’s said that great teams are built by great leaders. Mark Sullivan has helped to lead Vanderbilt pharmacy teams to remarkable achievements over the years. Perhaps none were more amazing than Vanderbilt’s response when back-to-back disasters struck earlier in 2020.

Just days apart in March, Vanderbilt faced dual emergencies—significant tornado damage to the health system warehouse which stores most clinical supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and fluids, followed by one of the earliest COVID-19 outbreaks.


  • Q: Looking back at how your pharmacy team handled the tornado and COVID-19 outbreak, what were some of your proudest moments?

    A: I’m so proud of the pharmacy teams for the way they pulled together and contributed to keep the hospital operating in the face of these challenges.

    We have great relationships with our supply chain colleagues. Managing the inventory that keeps the hospital running is a significant operation. When the tornado demolished our supply chain warehouse facility, there was a real willingness to support each other.

    We helped by warehousing supplies coming from the off-site facility, and storing them in and around the hallways of our 10,000 square foot basement pharmacy. That’s the stuff that people don’t see—teams working in scrubs late into day, sorting and storing supplies.

    As part of our COVID-19 response, pharmacy teams worked to reduce the potential for virus exposure to patients and staff, overcoming sourcing issues of staff, PPE, and medications, and change care delivery practices while maintaining social distancing.

    Because of the relationships across hospital leadership teams, we were able to quickly set up a temporary patient treatment site in an employee parking garage. The emergency department, our advance practice nursing group, adult hospital operations, and plant services all worked to quickly build out a highly functional space. The nursing team figured out how to staff it, and Pharmacy stepped up to support it for medications.

  • Q: During an emergency, how do you keep people focused on the task at hand when they may personally feel overwhelmed?

    A: Vanderbilt’s command center and emergency response structure here is very strong. It’s built on communication, collaboration, and proper preparation. And resiliency. We mimic that for the pharmacy department. We focus on keeping people apprised of what’s going on, we make sure we’re supporting our staff, we ensure our medication supply is appropriate for our patient population, and we stay in alignment with our leadership team. That approach has been very successful to ensure people are pulling in the same direction.

    It’s also personally being thankful for what we are able to do every day for our patients. I think our staff recognizes that and supports each other to take care of our patients. That perspective is important when there is so much negativity in our society right now.

  • Q: What fuels your passion for pharmacy?

    A: Several of my family members received critical care at Vanderbilt. I’ve seen the patient’s perspective. I know how important it is for every facet of care to be delivered with compassion, expertise, and patient perspective first and foremost in mind.

    At Vanderbilt, not only do we provide care for general medical conditions, but we also serve a specialized population with very specific needs. For instance, a patient with significant hypersensitivity to multiple medications was referred to me from one of our clinics. It’s just a blessing to be able to provide that unique care to someone in need.

    That’s what I hope to bring to my team, as we support pharmaceutical care for our adult population here at Vanderbilt. That’s really what gets me up and gets me going every morning—it’s that drive to make sure every patient gets the best possible care.

  • Q: As a leader, how do you stay connected to the practice of pharmacy?

    A: It’s all about the relationships and keeping open conversations—having folks be willing to answer questions when you ask. That’s a great value to me and how I maintain close touch.

    I’m blessed to work closely with very knowledgeable pharmacy operations and clinical practitioner leaders. We have ongoing discussions about challenges and opportunities around drug policy, formulary management, and patient care issues. I sit in on safety huddles with nursing to learn about current medication issues, patient concerns, and social determinants of health among patient populations.

    I also think it’s valuable for a pharmacy leader to keep in touch via certification. Some years ago, I was able to obtain my board certification in pharmacotherapy and I still do the continuing education.  

  • Q: What does it mean to you to have been entrusted with Tennessee’s initial remdesivir allocation?

    A: Vanderbilt’s clinical and research staffs have earned international reputations as forward thinkers. They also built really strong relationships with the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Hospital Association. And our Pharmacy leaders have been active and collaborative at the state level over the years.

    So, as Vanderbilt started developing COVID-19 treatment protocols early on—and had already been working with the drug in their layouts for several years—the state officials already knew we had the infrastructure in place and had confidence in Vanderbilt’s capabilities to step into this role.

    Among pharmacy, our logistics, operations, and leadership teams stepped up and ensured we had an intake process, that all data and custody information was collected and correct, and that we could distribute the drug anywhere in the state. We had a great team of people who were willing and able to support the process.

  • Q: Where do you see opportunities for pharmacy technology innovation?

    A: The Autonomous Pharmacy is intriguing to me. Within 10 years, there’s the real possibility that we can have health system pharmacy practice technology set up to function standalone without human intervention.

    It reminds me of the days when we had disparate EHR systems for pharmacy, lab, and charting. It took Cerner, Epic, and others to bring them all together. Pharmacy today has many great, disparate tools. Now it’s a matter of getting them to work together to benefit our patient populations.

    At Vanderbilt, I’ve been blessed to practice here and work closely with vendors to help refine their technologies. Our teams help to push to make their systems better in order to optimize the pharmacists and technician staff, so they can work at the top of their license. It is an exciting time.

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