- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

NORMAL, Ill. (AP) - Talk to a few students or professors in the family nurse practitioner program at Illinois State University and it’s easy to see the passion they have for health care.

All students in the program already are registered nurses. They will be expected to play key roles as demand for health care goes up at the same time a shortage of primary-care physicians is anticipated.

“We know more and more of the population is aging and the aging population uses more of our health care resources and dollars,” said Catherine Miller, interim dean of ISU’s Mennonite College of Nursing.

The majority of doctor visits are routine and involve monitoring of lab work and medications, Miller noted. “Nurse practitioners are very good at that,” she said.

One of the students, Amy O’Brien of Normal, likes the “very holistic approach” of merging nursing with a primary care role and getting to spend more time with the patients and “eliminate the fragmentation of care that happens too often.”

“Every patient is different,” said another student in the program, Lindsay Otero of Normal, who was attracted by the greater autonomy nurse practitioners have. “There’s always so much more, a bigger picture to put together.”

Andrew Tharp of Normal, who works as a nurse in the intensive care unit at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center, said he enrolled in the family nurse practitioner program to help “keep people out of the hospital setting.” He is looking forward to establishing long-term patient-practitioner relationships.

All three are benefiting from a two-year, $700,000 federal advanced education nursing traineeship grant that recently was awarded to ISU’s Mennonite College of Nursing by the Department of Health and Human Services.

O’Brien, a nurse in the cardio-vascular care unit at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center who also is married and a new mom, said the grant “made it possible to cut down on my work hours. It’s been a huge relief.”

Doctor shortage

By 2020, the United States expects a shortage of more than 20,000 primary-care physicians, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“The whole purpose of it (the grant) is to increase the number of primary-care providers,” said nursing professor Denise Wilson, who is director of the grant. “The government sees this as a perfect role for the family nurse practitioner to take on.”

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice nurses who receive additional training after becoming registered nurses, allowing them to provide primary care in areas including diagnosis, disease prevention and management of chronic diseases.

Wilson said developing critical thinking skills is a key part of the program.

Students are trained to look at the whole patient and their circumstances - not only diagnosing what’s wrong and how to treat it, but considering how the patient can pay for it, whether they have someone to help them and whether their home is safe, said Wilson, who leads the family nurse practitioner sequence.

“We take it beyond, ‘Here’s a prescription’ and you’re out the door,” she said.

In addition to the classroom, part of the training comes from working in clinical settings with a “preceptor” who critiques their work and in the college’s high-tech nursing simulation lab, where they practice their bedside manner as well as using diagnostic equipment.

“A big part of our mission is not only the providing of health care, but providing it in a caring-type environment,” said Wilson, who has been with the Mennonite College of Nursing for 34 years - well before it moved to ISU in 1999.

Full-time students complete the program in two years while part-time students take three years, Miller said.

About 65 students are in the program and about 20 graduate each year.

Miller and Wilson think one reason ISU was awarded the competitive grant is the success rate of its graduates on the advanced practice nurse certification exam they must take after graduation.

Since the first class graduated in 1998, ISU graduates have had a 99 percent passing rate compared to a national average in the mid-80s, Wilson said.

That means ISU is “getting family nurse practitioners out there in the workforce,” Miller said.

O’Brien, who expects to graduate this spring, said the switch from the role of bedside nurse to provider takes a different mindset.

“You’re the one who decides what we’re going to do,” she said. “Yeah, it’s scary, but I know I’m getting a good foundation and that makes it comforting when I get out on my own.”

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Online: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/1rdeCWz

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Information from: The Pantagraph, https://www.pantagraph.com


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