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Breaking Down Health Care Barriers

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New master's level Family Nurse Practitioner program addresses health care needs by providing more access to primary care providers

By Judith Berger '98

Like the perfect storm, emerging clouds of an aging population, rising health care costs, constraining budgets and stagnating unemployment levels puts the nation's health at risk.

Add to that the recent findings that there is a growing shortage of health care professionals in our country. A study conducted by the American Society for Quality, headquartered in Milwaukee, showed that this shortage exposes patients to fragmented and uncoordinated care, longer wait times and more medical errors.

And that’s where Alverno College comes in. Poised to become part of the solution, the College announced a new Family Nurse Practitioner program set to launch this fall.

Looking inside Milwaukee

Health care workers at the City of Milwaukee Health Department see patients from infants to the elderly fall through the cracks of the health care system every day.

Last year 11,000 babies were born in Milwaukee. Nearly half were born into families on Medicaid or with little access to health care, said Anna Benton, family and community health services director for the City of Milwaukee Health Department. "Decades ago, health department nurses visited every newborn in the city, checking on moms and babies, making sure of a healthy start in life,” she said. “Now the city focuses on 10 to 12 high-risk ZIP codes, serving as a safety net for the most vulnerable in our community."

"We have a whole host of needs when addressing health issues in the community. We can’t meet 30 to 40 percent of demand for primary care," said Bevan Baker, commissioner of the City of Milwaukee Health Department. "Which is why we embrace a program such as this that will bring human resources to bear."

Filling a community need

Baker is referring to Alverno College’s Master of Science Family Nurse Practitioner program. "We are a huge supporter of the nurse practitioner model. We are very excited about the development of this program that can provide quality nurse practitioners and alleviate a growing need for years to come. I’m excited that an educational institution like Alverno College has instituted such a program. It will be a viable and robust feeder system right here in our community to fill the increasing and ongoing need for care."

Built off its rich, 80-year history of educating nurses, Alverno's Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program focuses on the highest need and broadest population – the primary care of individuals and families – to meet the needs of nurses seeking FNP certification. The program was developed based on input from 400 southeastern Wisconsin nurses, of which more than 63 percent indicated job opportunities for nurse practitioners with a master’s degree are increasing.

With intensive research and substantial input from the local nursing community, the master’s program in advance practice nursing with four specialty courses in FNP is launching this fall. A post-master's program, which begins January 2012, prepares MSN students for FNP certification. "Our dean, Pat Schroeder, had a vision to grow the master’s program," said Alverno’s MSN Program Director Cathy Knuteson, Ph.D., CNE, RN. "In order to grow, we needed to offer a variety of programs that meet the market demand. FNPs provide high-quality care and increase access to health care for all patients."

Reflecting on the city’s current situation, Baker elaborated on the demand, "We look to provide a medical home where citizens who lack the resources can get affordable, ongoing care and ways to stay healthy. As I see it, the (Alverno) College is doing two important things for our community, which are: meeting the needs for health care providers and developing valuable higher education degrees for women (and men) in our community that opens doors and prepares them for opportunity."

Expanding the nursing role

The role of the nurse practitioner continues to evolve in response to changing societal and health care needs. Family nurse practitioners are on the front lines of primary care of individuals and families across the lifespan, said Knuteson. Family nurse practitioners combine roles of provider, mentor, educator, researcher and administrator. "Family nurse practitioners not only identify and treat illness, they are involved in patient education and coach healthy lifestyles from prenatal and infancy to the elderly," she said.

Executive Director Gina Dennick-Champion, MSN, RN, MSHA, of the Wisconsin Nurses Association (WNA) said the advance practice nursing specialty is about 30 years old, but the demand continues to grow in primary care roles. "The FNP brings skills for better patient care coordination, better patient education and a strong ability to work across other health care disciplines to improve the conditions for all patients, particularly the chronically ill," she said.

An FNP certification prepares nurses to work in any setting from hospitals, clinics, private practices, school systems and workplace wellness programs. The WNA data shows that the salary range for those in the advance practice nursing field is $55,000-$103,000, with an average salary of $82,556.

"Nurse practitioners are an excellent gateway to care. They are physician-extenders and increase the availability of quality care in our community," Baker said.

Putting solutions to work

There are several successful examples of community programs that are already leveraging the quality-of-care from nurse practitioners. For example, a Milwaukee health department program, the Nurse Family Partnership Program, relies on department nurses to work with moms from pregnancy through the child’s second birthday.

The program is based on a national model with one of the longest data studies on health in the country. "The studies from the national model have followed children in this program until they reach 18 years of age. They have a higher rate of high school graduation and a lower rate of incarceration," Benton said.

The Wisconsin state-supported program has five nurses in the program. "From January to May of this year, our nurses performed 575 home visits. We want the mother to be healthy during pregnancy so she gives birth to a healthy-weight child. We teach safe-sleeping practices, promote breast feeding, address safety issues in the home and encourage reading to their child," she said of some of the care and teaching done by the staff. "We want the child to have the best possible start in life."