Nurses Train for the Hill

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Tasked with identifying and fulfilling specific healthcare goals, health policy has never been more important in our country. We’re in the midst of a healthcare paradigm shift that requires the execution of thoughtful and research-based strategies. All too often, the body of people making decisions and planning for societal changes lacks a clinical healthcare background.

Through a partnership with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the University of New Mexico College of Nursing in Albuquerque is preparing a new generation of nurses with PhDs to meet our nation’s health policy challenges. The program endeavors to build the capacity of nurse leaders to engage as full partners with other professions in research, analysis, development, and advocacy of health policy at all levels.

“With the rising costs and increasing complexity of healthcare, the policies are critical to fostering better health in our country,” shared Nancy Ridenour, PhD, RN, APRN, BC, FAAN, dean and professor of UNM College of Nursing.

Nurses comprise the largest single component of hospital staff, are the primary providers of hospital patient care, and deliver most of the nation’s long-term care, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “Nurses are in the best position to inform policymakers because they’re on the front line,” observed Ridenour.

Historically, according to Ridenour, nurses have not played a large role in health policy, however, policymakers gravely lack scientific and clinical input. “My goal is to have all types of clinicians informing the people writing the policies, not just nurses,” she qualified.

Ridenour guides the doctorate program to provide nurses with a structured, formal education so they can do the research needed to inform policymakers. “They may even be policymakers themselves one day,” she shared.

Nurses’ Role Instrumental to the Future of Healthcare

Regina Eddie, current PhD student at the UNM College of Nursing, at the Capitol.

The health policy concentration in the UNM College of Nursing PhD Program leverages real-world clinical experience and relevant research to create a deep understanding of the factors that shape and influence health-related policy decisions.

The program’s reach extends beyond the academic setting to encourage its fellows to engage with the community and policymakers. The program zeroes in on policies that make a difference in healthcare, and on techniques for building an evidence-based case for policy change.

“Knowing they can make an impact is key to nurses’ involvement in health policies,” Ridenour stated. “We teach our students how to assess the needs of the local community.”

SEE ALSO: Earn CE: I’m a Nurse. Now What?

Ridenour points out that health policy is often thought of on a national level, but is also of concern on the local level. School boards, for example, make decisions that can affect children’s health in the community. “School boards are a great place for nurses to get involved,” she said.

Once the nurses have gathered the rights tools in their toolbox [through the program], they will be more motivated to become involved, Ridenour explained.

Paving the Way to Health Policy

Ridenour gathered applicable experience during an 18-month stint in Washington, DC, as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Fellow in Health Policy, working on Capitol Hill with the Ways and Means Committee. “I learned on the Hill that more than half of the bankruptcies in this country are because of healthcare costs,” she shared. “Healthcare is too expensive; it’s become a burden on the nation.”

Healthcare reform is unraveling a host of challenges and opportunities that are affecting the way we receive care in this country. From the rapidly aging population to an influx of newly-insured patients, healthcare budgets are being stretched too thin. Healthcare challenges are heightened in rural populations due to limited healthcare providers, and in low-income communities that have long been underserved.

Nurse leaders are critical to ensuring that health policies meet the needs of all populations. UNM College of Nursing has worked to equip nurses with the background, preparation, and ability to develop innovative solutions to urgent problems.

Ridenour acknowledges that getting to the table is the hardest part of the process. “It has been difficult, in general, for nurses to be at the right table,” she explained. “We teach our students how to get to the table.”

There are more nurses at the policy table now than ever before, Ridenour explained, and policymakers realize how much they need nurses and other clinicians to share their perspectives. However, health policy still severely lacks the clinical data and research needed to appropriately guide decisions and plans for public health.

Ridenour points to transition of care as a prime example of an area extremely lacking in data and research. “Nurses have been involved in transition of care for a long time but not on a big scale,” she said. “There are now incentives for institutions to pay attention to transition, and not just episodes of care. When done right, it should decrease costs and improve care, the very crux of what we’re trying to achieve in this country.”

Ridenour encourages nurses and other health professions to initiate health services research and figure out how to prevent illnesses and incentivize better care. “Former students have gone on to make an impact on health policy. We have one graduate in North Dakota who is changing tobacco policies for the state and working on other initiatives,” she shared.

Future of the Program

The Collaborative has awarded support to its final cohort of doctoral fellows, who will complete their studies in 2018. “RWJF has been generous in supporting the program and supporting the students,” Ridenour states. “We will need to figure out funding once it ends in 2018.”

Ridenour and other program leaders are in the process of creating a story to inform potential donors of the importance of the nursing niche, and are looking at other foundations for research grants. “We’re considering what type of students to pursue to invest in the future of the program,” Ridenour shared.

Specifically, Ridenour would like to increase the participation of Native Americans in the program. “Native Americans deal with health policy at the federal, state and tribal level,” she observed. “It’s very complex.”

There are fewer than 30 Native Americans nurses with doctorates in the county, across all disciplines, not just health policy. “It’s a special niche that universities in other locations don’t have. We’re prepared to address culture and language issues, access to care, and overall response to interventions.”

Rebecca Mayer Knutsen is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: rknutsen@advanceweb.com

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