This post was co-authored by Dr. Kimberly Baltzell, Director, University of California San Fransiciso School of Nursing, Center for Global Health.
Registered nurses are many of "The Ebola Fighters," which just last week TIME magazine named as the 2014 Person of the Year. To the vast majority of people, registered nurses deliver health care to persons who are sick. We're glad that we're honoring these individuals. Direct, hands-on patient care work is hard, and the personal risk to health care providers is great.
In general, this is how people view registered nurses -- in scrubs, providing care that physicians prescribe. What's not as evident is that there are other aspects of nursing -- that is, that registered nurses have their own practice independent of physicians, and that registered nurses can get Ph.D.s in nursing and then systematically find ways to improve how health care is delivered. It's this second point -- registered nurses as scientists/researchers that we would like to discuss.
Both of us are Ph.D. registered nurses and both of us are scientists/researchers. We each have heard the following statements when someone hears that we have Ph.D.s in nursing, "a Ph.D.? Why not just go to medical school?" or "I didn't know you could get a Ph.D. in nursing." In these moments, we explain how nursing practice is distinct from medical practice and that a Ph.D. is a research degree and an M.D. is a practice degree. We say, "Yes, Ph.D.s in nursing exist" and this is what we do.
Here are some examples of the kinds of research that nurse researchers/scientists have conducted, which have resulted in improvements in care -- In an emergency, a fighter pilot may reach for a mask to determine if his/her oxygen levels are dangerously low. If a women giving birth in Zambia begins bleeding profusely, a simple Velcro bodysuit designed to apply pressure and stop the bleeding may be used. A patient undergoing cardiac surgery has a greater chance of survival in a crisis due to new resuscitation standards. Cancer patients outcomes may be linked to clusters of symptoms, giving the health care provider important clues on what type of treatment to prescribe.
All of these creative solutions to critical problems involved nursing research, nursing science. You thought the role of a nurse is to deliver care at the bedside or in the community. That is true, however, that work at the bedside or in a community gives nurses a bird's eye view of what needs to be fixed or improved. These same nurses may then go on for more education culminating in the terminal degree -- a Ph.D. in nursing. These Ph.D. nurses design and conduct studies that help enhance health, decrease suffering, and improve the quality of health care. Nurse scientists work on real life problems in virtually every area of healthcare, in every setting, in every country.
The U.S. government may be recognizing the value of investing in nursing. In fact, last week the House of Representatives passed a bill which impacts nursing and health care. Additional funds have been designated for Ebola preparation and treatment, both here and in West Africa. Importantly, there are increases in funds for both advanced nursing education and nursing research through the National Institutes of Health.
So, if you or someone you care about has benefited from modern day health care, chances are a nurse researcher/scientist was involved in the design or innovation. In fact, those hands that care for you at the bedside may well be delivering interventions pioneered by a nurse scientist.