UNIVERSITY PARK — As the health care field booms, Penn State’s newly minted College of Nursing is looking to contribute its expertise.
Administrators and faculty at the college with more than 2,800 students are positioning it to be a leader in the education of the next generation of nurses and the research into improving patient care.
“We have really focused our growth in those areas that would make a big impact on the community, on the profession and really contribute significantly with our mission,” said the college’s dean, Paula Milone-Nuzzo, who has had a leadership position since 2003, when she was director of the then-school of nursing.
The recent classification change from a school to a college, approved this past fall, will bring with it more clout for the program and subsequently more opportunities to participate in the growth of the field.
Next year, the college will have the Health and Human Development East building all to itself, when that college moves into the new building under construction.
The designation also is in recognition that the college became an independent academic unit and academic excellence with growth in its graduate programs and research productivity, Milone-Nuzzo said.
The college is the largest of its kind in Pennsylvania and one of the biggest in the country, Milone-Nuzzo said.
The college will commemorate its growth with a 50-year anniversary celebration the weekend of April 4-6.
In the past five years, the college became financially independent from its parent unit, the College of Health and Human Development.
“This change is a logical step in our development that creates visibility and brings clarity to our structure within the university system,” Milone-Nuzzo said. “It also improves our status among nursing schools nationally, which will help our efforts to recruit exceptional faculty and students.”
One of the most immediate contributions the college will look to make has to do with the health care law, the Affordable Care Act, which will make 32 million people eligible for health insurance for the first time.
Milone-Nuzzo said nurses will have a more important role in patients’ primary care. She called the health care law an “important leverage for change” in the way health care is provided.
“We’re looking down the road, and we’re seeing how critically important it is to have high-quality nurses, graduates who make differences in delivery, and how we are going to change the science of health care through our Ph.D-prepared program,” she said.
In response to the demand for nursing research, the college is transitioning from associate-degree programs and will offer only baccalaureate degrees. The last associate-degree class will be admitted this fall, and that group will graduate in May 2016.
She said the profession has suggested a bachelor’s degree is the preferred level for nurses, because patients need health care professionals who can think critically.
“It’s really about what we know about health care delivery that has driven that change,” Milone-Nuzzo said. “Health care today is so complex that we need advanced education at the bachelor’s level to care for patients. We believe it’s the right decision.”
The branch campuses that offer the associate nursing degrees — Altoona, Erie, Fayette, Mont Alto and Scranton — will offer the four-year degree, she said. Fall 2014 will be the first semester the branch campuses will begin offering the bachelor’s degrees.
Milone-Nuzzo said two new online graduate programs target nursing professionals who need additional credentials to advance their careers. The online post-graduate degree, offered through the university’s World Campus, has two options — nurse administrator and nurse educator — and faculty at the University Park campuses and the Hershey Medical Center are teaching the courses.
“We know that the health care is improved by interprofessional work of physicians and nurses,” she said.
So far, there are 29 people enrolled in the nascent program, with 15 in the administrator option and 14 in the educator option, said college spokeswoman Beverly Molnar.
Students will have to complete a 180-hour clinical practicum in a location near them with a mentor and a written capstone project.
The college also received a $1.12 million federal grant to enable medical students at the University Park and Hershey campuses to connect with nurse practitioner students at three branch campuses, using online or interactive video technology.
The goal for that project is that the students will learn safety and quality of care for patients who are in rural parts of the state that are underserved by physicians.
The college also has an accelerated baccalaureate degree in nursing at two campuses, Altoona and Harrisburg. That’s where students with bachelor’s degrees in other fields can finish up a nursing degree in 16 months. Milone-Nuzzo said she’d like to extend the program to a third campus.
Also on the horizon is a professional doctoral nursing program.
Milone-Nuzzo came to Penn State in 2003, when she became the director of what was then the nursing school. She said she was told to grow the research enterprise, and she built on strengths in gerontology and grew programs in research of elder care, palliative care, heart failure and sleep.
“Nursing research is so critical to health care delivery because it allows us to identify areas where nurses can make differences and identify best practices,” Milone-Nuzzo said.
Faculty members in the college’s Center for Nursing Research have partnered with Actuated Medical, a Benner Township-based company that designs medical devices. In 2011, the company donated $5,000 to the center to recognize the work being done. Faculty affiliated with the college had acted as consultants as far back as 2008 to provide expert advice on designs of the devices the company made for use in clinical nursing settings.
In 2013, Actuated Medical and the Center for Nursing Research collaborated on a system the company developed to clear clogs in feeding and decompression tubes without having to remove the tubes from patients.
In addition, Donna Fick, a distinguished professor of nursing, was on a team of researchers that recently studied delirium, a condition similar to dementia that can be treated if caught early on. The researchers determined that the failure to detect and treat delirium led to a faster decline in patients’ mental and physical health.
“Preventing delirium is important, because we want to discharge patients at their baseline or improved functioning,” Fick said in September, when the findings of the study were published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine. “We do not want them to go home with worse functioning than when they came into the hospital.”
Fick and her colleagues hope to help practitioners recognize and treat delirium in patients with dementia as soon as possible to improve their quality of life.
They studied 139 hospitalized adults 65 and older and found that patients who developed delirium had a 25 percent chance of dying within a month, according to the journal.
“When we think about research and translating that research to the bedside, there’s a very long trajectory,” Milone-Nuzzo said, speaking broadly.
“Nurses want to shorten that. They are providing day-to-day care.”
In January, assistant professor Lisa Kitko received a $120,000 grant to study terminal patients with left ventricular assist devices. She wants to identify patients’ needs and the needs of their caregivers.
Kitko said there is little research on end-of-life experiences, such as whether the patient would want pain-relieving care or prefer dying with the device in place.
The college’s faculty have become more competitive in securing funding from the National Institutes of Health, rising from No. 93 among nursing schools in 2004 to No. 17 in 2011 with $2.8 million in research awards.
In fiscal 2012, the college ranked at No. 22 with a little more than $2 million in awards.
“We have made huge strides in our NIH funding,” Milone-Nuzzo said.
As far as growth in the undergraduate programs, the dean said the college is content to stay at current levels. The college has more than 2,800 undergraduates, a figure that includes its World Campus program.
“People are recognizing how important nursing is to health care of the population,” she said, adding that most graduates enter the workforce.
If the college were to take in more students, it would have to have available even more places for the students to fulfill the clinical hours required for graduation.
Those current locales include Mount Nittany Medical Center and HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital.