Problem: Millions of uninsured and underinsured people—a disproportionate share of whom are Black and Latino—lack access to affordable, high quality health care. Because many are not able to get preventive or primary care services at the doctors’ office, they often end up in the emergency room, where care is expensive and fleeting.
Background: As a nurse, a former naval officer and a teacher, Gloria McNeal, Ph.D., A.C.N.S.-B.C., F.A.A.N., has spent her life in the service of others.
She took her first footsteps on that journey of service decades ago, when she decided to follow her mother into the nursing profession. She enrolled in the nursing school at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and, after graduating, became an officer in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. A few years later she returned to academia to get her master’s degree in nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied under the internationally renowned nurse leader Claire M. Fagin, R.N., Ph.D., F.A.A.N.
After earning her master’s degree, she worked days, nights and weekends as a clinical nurse, a nurse educator and a doctoral nursing student. Nursing school administrators noticed her leadership potential and asked her to take on a management position soon after she earned her doctoral degree in higher education administration.
McNeal became the project director of the acute care nurse practitioner program at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and then moved on to assume the associate deanship for nursing at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She recently reached another career milestone: In January, she became dean of the nursing school at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.
Her new post is the perfect capstone to a career dedicated to service. Named in honor of Charles Drew, M.D.—a legendary Black physician who pioneered blood preservation techniques—the university is built on a tradition of public service. “The university really wants its graduates to stay committed to the underserved,” McNeal says, noting that it is located in an impoverished section of South Los Angeles. “A vast majority of Drew graduates stay on to provide care to indigent populations.”
Solution: Serving the poor is precisely what McNeal plans to do as dean of the nursing school. Just a few months into her tenure, she is already working to bring one of her signature projects—a medical clinic on wheels that provides free preventive and primary care services to the poor—to the West Coast.
“Acute and chronic nursing care can be delivered in settings without walls,” she says.
Over the course of her career, McNeal has acquired more than $5 million in federal and foundation extramural funding to implement mobile nurse-managed primary care centers.
She is planning to bring this model of care delivery to Charles Drew University. The clinic will be similar to units she ran in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which served thousands of patients and led to a reduction in visits to the emergency room, she says. They also served as a practice site for nursing and medical students and faculty.
The model is easy to replicate on the West Coast; the only difference, she says, will be the size of the population it serves. There are 1.5 million people who live in close proximity to Charles Drew University, many of whom, McNeal notes, have no insurance and are unemployed. “This is a very expensive area to live in,” she says. “It’s unimaginable how individuals can even survive.”
Creating the new unit won’t be the only focus of her work at the university. As dean of the nursing school, she also plans to establish an accelerated master’s degree program designed to train students with bachelor’s degrees in other fields to become nurses. Students will earn their degrees in five semesters over two years and, upon graduation, will be eligible to sit for the nursing licensure and certification examinations. In the future she plans to implement undergraduate and doctoral nursing programs of study.
She will also continue her research into telemedicine, a new application of clinical medicine that uses technological innovations to transfer health information remotely.
For her research, McNeal plans to provide patients with user-friendly electronic devices to monitor chronic illnesses like asthma, heart disease and diabetes. The devices will store and record patients’ vital signs such as blood sugar levels and lung function. Aberrant findings will be transmitted electronically, enabling nurses to respond quickly to trending changes and prevent catastrophic outcomes.
Many decades after she first became interested in helping others, McNeal is no longer actively serving the country as a member of the military or practicing in the tertiary care setting. But she’s still living out her life of service, just in a different role: as a leader.
RWJF Perspective: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has a longstanding commitment to narrowing disparities in health. The Foundation recognized McNeal’s work in this area by naming her to the 2007 cohort of the Executive Nurse Fellows program. During the three-year program, McNeal attended leadership training seminars, participated in a mentor experience with a top-level executive outside of the health care system and conducted a leadership project at her university.