Nurses as Scientists

Research fellowships foster a culture of inquiry among nurses

Nurses work so closely with patients; they see the entire patient experience. This puts them in a unique position to both ask important questions and find the answers – either as primary investigators, partners with professional colleagues, or data collectors. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC), located in Lebanon, N.H., strives to encourage nurses to embrace their roles as scientists and researchers by encouraging participation in a variety of ways.First, DHMC has in place a “professional practice model” for nurses, with four tenets: leader/decision-maker; practitioner; transferor (transferring knowledge to each other, to patients, and to other clinicians at DHMC); and scientist.

“Being a scientist is one of a nurse’s most important roles,” said Jean Coffey, PhD, APRN, director of nursing research and innovation – a newly developed position created by DHMC to build and enhance the infrastructure for nursing research across DHMC’s entire system. “My role was created to engage and inspire the scientist in every nurse in the DHMC system. Nurses should always be asking themselves, ‘How can we do this better?’ Every inquiry leads to an opportunity to create new knowledge.”

Supporting Researchers

In her new position, Coffey is in the process of visiting nurses in every DHMC location to learn how she can support their research interests. Her new role involves a two-pronged approach. The first part involves examining and promoting the conduct of research. “I can help the nurses structure their research projects, and put them in touch with the resources they need to carry their project out,” Coffey commented. A research project might involve conducting a study, or just reviewing existing literature to find either patterns or gaps in an accepted clinical practice.

The second prong involves planning out the best way to apply or transfer the research findings into practice. “This is the reason I love doing research – because it makes you a better practitioner,” Coffey enthused. “It helps you identify paths toward new or improved evidence-based practice.”

Dedicating Time

To get the nurses in their organization involved, DHMC invited them to apply for a nursing research fellowship position by submitting an application and a 500-word essay detailing what they planned to research. Coffey convened a committee of nurse scholars to review the submissions. “We weren’t sure what to expect, and it turned into a very competitive process,” Coffey noted. “We received 20 applications for only 10 fellowship openings.”

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical CenterClick
HEAD OF THE CLASS: Nursing research fellows at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center embrace their roles as scientists and leaders. Photo courtesy Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical CenterClick

The 10 fellows who were chosen will have 12 months of “protected time” on the job – time spent away from patient care – to conduct their research projects; a one-on-one mentor within the organization to guide their project and answer questions; and a variety of seminars throughout the year, which will bolster their knowledge of how to tailor a research project and analyze the data that’s been collected. For example, during one of the planned seminars, a statistician will be talking to the nurse fellows about data analysis.

“One of the hardest things about doing a research project is finding the time to get the data collected in the first place,” Coffey mentioned. “When I first stepped into this role, I surveyed all the nurses in our organization. Interestingly, a majority of the nurses said they were very interested in conducting research projects, but due to time constraints, they were hesitant to become involved. So that concept of ‘protected time’ – setting aside some of their paid work hours to conduct research – is very unique and important.”

The 10 nursing research fellows will eventually present the results and findings of their projects to the rest of DHMC’s nurses, as well as to other clinicians across the spectrum of care. “This is truly an exciting, progressive and unique program for nurses,” Coffey concluded. “Everybody wins – our nurses, our patients, and our interprofessional colleagues.”