Nurses Lead Innovations in Geriatrics and Gerontology

Nurse-led initiatives are intended to help the nation’s health care system prepare for a crush of elderly people with multiple chronic conditions.

    • July 11, 2014
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Nurses have been leading health care innovations since the dawn of the profession. They have ushered in broad-scale changes in areas ranging from better hygiene practices for wounded soldiers to public health visits to overcrowded urban homes to reproductive health services for women.

In more recent decades, nurses have begun developing innovations in geriatric care to help meet the massive health care needs of an aging population. They are finding new ways to improve the quality of care for older adults and ensure that it takes family and community considerations into account; improve access to highly skilled health care providers with training in geriatrics; narrow disparities that disproportionately affect older minorities; avoid preventable hospital readmissions; and more.

Their work answers the call from a groundbreaking report on the future of nursing that was released in 2010 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). It urges nurses to continue their long legacy of innovation “as the health care needs of the population change from acute and infectious disease to that of an aging population with chronic disease.”

The country is, indeed, undergoing dramatic demographic changes. As Baby Boomers age and immigration patterns change, America is becoming older and more diverse. By 2050, the number of Americans age 65 and older will hit 40 million, about 20 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These changes will strain the health care system and the nursing profession, the largest segment of the health care workforce.

Experts say the nursing workforce is not adequately prepared for a crush of elderly patients who are living longer, and sicker, with more chronic and complex health conditions. To meet these growing health care demands and bridge gaps in services for older Americans, the IOM said nurses “must continue to develop innovative care models based on current successes” in rural aging and other areas.

Fortunately, many nurses are already leading efforts to meet current and future health care needs. “Nurses are beginning to home in on the chronicity and the larger number of older people coming down the pike,” said Jennie Chin Hansen, RN, MS, FAAN, CEO of the American Geriatrics Society and a member of the study committee supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that drafted the IOM’s nursing report.

She pointed to the Transitional Care Model, developed by Mary Naylor, RN, PhD, FAAN, national program director for RWJF’s Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative (INQRI). The model utilizes nurses to reduce hospital readmissions among elderly patients after they have been discharged from the hospital. As many as one-third of re-hospitalizations are considered preventable, so reducing readmissions not only improves patients’ quality of life, but reduces health care costs.

The Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) is an example of a nurse-driven innovation in geriatric care. A replication of a program spearheaded many years ago by Chin Hansen, PACE is a now a federally legislated program in which interdisciplinary teams of providers give frail elders coordinated health, medical, and social services support by a one-stop system, a process that enables many to live in their own homes for longer periods of time.

Another nurse-led innovation, Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders (NICHE), was developed to better meet the needs of older adults in a health care system that, in general, lacked access to gerontology-trained providers and to care coordination services. The NICHE program is helping hospitals and, increasingly, community health systems, provide older Americans with “sensitive and exemplary care.” Under the program, “nurses are empowered by knowledge to provide high-quality care for older adults and, in doing so, teach others about the uniqueness of caring for older adults,” said Tara Cortes, PhD, RN, FAAN, executive director of the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing in New York and an alumna of the RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program (1999-2002).

And that’s just the beginning:

Promoting cancer screening among older African American women

Nurses all over the country are studying ways to improve care for older Americans. In North Carolina, for example, Dee Baldwin, PhD, RN, FAAN, a nurse educator at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and an RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program alumna (2000-2003), has spent decades exploring ways to prevent cancer in older African American women, who are more likely to die from the disease than other groups.

In 1992, Baldwin launched Project Breast Health, a culturally sensitive educational program to encourage more African American women to take advantage of cancer screening services. She also led an effort to hire lay navigators to raise awareness about breast and cervical cancer among older women in African American communities and developed electronic computer messaging to target the population. “We tried to look at different ways to reach people.”

Improving the quality of care in assisted-living facilities

Anna Beeber, PhD, RN, an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar (2011-2014) also from North Carolina, is exploring ways to improve the quality of care in assisted-living facilities. She is conducting research that examines staffing, service delivery, and resident outcomes in order to help assisted-living communities better match services with resident needs. “We really don’t know in assisted-living communities what, if any, influence nurses have on quality of care,” she says. And that is a critical piece of information that has the potential to improve care for the roughly 1 million Americans who currently live in the country’s 22,000 assisted-living facilities.

Increasing the number of geriatrics-trained nurses

In North Dakota, Jane Strommen, PhD, project coordinator of the North Dakota Gerontology Consortium, an initiative supported by Partners Investing in Nursing’s Future (PIN), is working to ensure that older people have more access to geriatrics-trained nurses. She and her team are promoting gerontology nursing via marketing materials, nursing conferences, nursing-themed summer camps, and stipends for nurses and nurse educators who study gerontology and geriatric nursing. “We have a growing population of older adults in our state, and we know the need for nurses who have the skills and training to care for them is just going to increase,” she says.

Creating safer homes

And in Maryland, Sarah Szanton, PhD, ANP, an RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar (2011-2014) and associate professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University, has come up with an innovative program to use “handymen” to turn older people’s homes into safe environments. Her goal is to enable elderly people to continue living in their homes as long as they are willing and able—and to stay out of nursing homes, which create considerable taxpayer expense. Read more about Szanton’s work here.

These projects are among the many nurse-led efforts under way across the nation to improve care for older Americans—a natural outgrowth, Chin Hansen says, of nurses’ skills, abilities, and population focus. “One of the things that nurses have always done is advocate for the patient and the family,” she says. They will continue to do that as their patients get older, and they will likely have a greater ability to transform health care as more earn master’s and doctoral degrees and assume positions of leadership in health care and society. Says Chin Hansen: “More nurses are being sought out for their leadership and their ability to change the current culture of medical care towards health and health care in an aging America.”

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