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UC Nurse Scientists Boost Development of Quality Care
Published November 2004
From their early days as "handmaidens" to a then patriarchal medical
profession, nurses have long since assumed significant, decision-making
roles on what is now a multidisciplinary health care delivery team.
In the past 15 to 20 years, however, nursing has evolved even further.
Nurses are moving from the bedside to the research bench in a growing
trend to nursing-oriented science.
Nurses are not only in the forefront of delivering quality health care.
They're also playing an increasingly important part in developing it.
A measure of how important their role is viewed by health care
governance in the U.S. is that fact that nurses now have their own
National Institute of Nursing Research at the National Institutes of
Where once any nurse "doing research" was at best a project director
implementing someone else's protocol, today's nurse scientist is very
likely to be the funded principal investigator directing a team of
physicians or PhDs.
"In some areas nurses are now the senior, mentoring scientist, and
that's a real switch," says Marilyn (Lynn) Sommers, PhD, RN, associate
dean of research at UC College of Nursing and head of the school's
Institute for Nursing Research.
Dr. Sommers, herself heading two major studies funded by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NIH, says training
doctoral-level nurses in investigative techniques not only advances
patient care and professional education—their research also generates
hotly contended external funding.
And it's this "grantsmanship" that wins respect and acceptance in the
highly competitive, cash-conscious milieu of growing academic health
centers like UC.
In the 1980s, says Dr. Sommers, academic nursing saw the value in
graduating more scientists as well as doctoral-level educators. But,
she says, "there was ambivalence then about their role."
Critics questioned whether nurses could in fact do "rigorous" science,
and many nursing schools had trouble getting accredited to grant the
PhD degree. From a handful 20 years ago, however, there are now 90
nursing schools in the U.S. granting PhD and DNSc degrees.
"Opponents thought the money could be better used," Dr. Sommers says.
"We had to make a strong argument about what nurses have to contribute
to research. Demonstrating a body of knowledge took 10 to 15 years.
"Since then nurses have gone head-to-head with scientists in other disciplines and shown their science can hold its own."
For example, the College of Nursing has increased its research funding
from $420,000 in 1991_92 to $1.8 million in 2004, much of it from the
CDC, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National
Institute of Nursing Research.
But what do nurse researchers do to justify funding that others say could be "better used" elsewhere?
It's a familiar question to Dr. Sommers.
"The main difference," she says,"is that the physician scientist
generally studies interventions conducive to cure. The nurse is more
concerned with prevention, and what works best to help patients live
with their disease. Timewise, in fact, patients come to the hospital
more for nursing than for physician care.
"For example, the cancer specialist studies whether radiation,
chemother-apy or surgery is the best approach. The nurse sees a cancer
patient as a person who will suffer from profound fatigue and asks what
the interventions should be.
"Both views are equally important," says Dr. Sommers. "One seeks the
best cure. The other studies the best way for patients to live and cope
with the diagnosis and manage their symptoms. Whether it's diabetes or
heart failure or even nausea in pregnancy, they want a better quality
of life, and nurses are in the best position to find ways to achieve
"Of course we need to continue to spend money on finding cures, and
physicians are the best people to do that," Dr. Sommers says. "But we
must also find new ways to prevent disease, and help people live to
their fullest when they become ill.
"I believe people very much want to live better with their diseases. If
that's the case, then the argument for nurses in research is won.