Long overlooked in policy debates over health and health care, nurses are beginning to claim their rightful place in executive positions in government.
One example is Linda Degutis, Dr. P.H., M.S.N, the first health professional with a nursing background to direct the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
Prior to her appointment, Degutis was associate professor of emergency medicine and public health and associate clinical professor of nursing at Yale University, research director at Yale’s Department of Emergency Medicine and director of the Yale Center for Public Health Preparedness. An alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Fellows program (1996-1997), she assumed her new position at the CDC in November.
Degutis says her background in nursing is “a definite asset” at the CDC’s injury center, which aims to prevent and mitigate the effects of injuries and violence and promote wellness—key goals of the nursing profession. “This just fits tremendously well with that,” she says.
Nurses around the country, and the patients they care for, also benefit when nurses take prominent leadership positions, she says. As the largest group of health care professionals in the country, nurses have unique experiences and insights into the health care system, yet until now few have had significant influence in policy decisions about how to improve health and health care. More nurse leaders in executive positions, Degutis says, will help reverse this trend. “It highlights some of the opportunities that people can have with backgrounds in nursing.”
In her new position, Degutis has more responsibility than ever. She oversees a $145 million budget and a 200-person staff and leads the national discussion about how to prevent injury and violence—the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths every year and countless short- and long-term disabilities.
But Degutis is no stranger to leadership.
She has served as president of the American Public Health Association, as well as chair of the organization’s executive board. She has also directed the Connecticut Partnership for Public Health Workforce Development, part of the New England Alliance for Workforce Development. And she has served in various capacities on academic, educational and advocacy organizations.
Degutis is currently a member of the Advisory Board of the RWJF Health Policy Fellows program and is a member of the affiliate faculty for the RWJF Clinical Scholars program.
Degutis’ Experience in Health Care Dates Back to Her Days as Teenager
Degutis started her long march to the top of the public health profession at the bottom: as a volunteer candy striper at the age of 13.
Her first assignment was cleaning glassware in a hospital laboratory. That led to a volunteer opportunity in an emergency room, which in turn led to her first paid position as a nurses’ aide—a job she held through high school and college.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing at DePaul University in her native Illinois, and then headed east where she earned her master’s degree in nursing at Yale University in 1982. After graduating, she joined Yale’s Department of Surgery as a trauma program coordinator.
In 1994, Degutis completed her doctorate in public health at Yale and, two years later, she began the RWJF Health Policy Fellowship program in the office of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. While there, she focused on issues ranging from modernization of the Food & Drug Administration to changes to the medical device approval processes, prescription drug costs, mental health and substance abuse parity, children’s health insurance coverage, domestic violence, and tobacco litigation.
The fellowship provided her with a depth and breadth of knowledge that laid the groundwork for her current position as head of the CDC’s injury center. “It gave me the knowledge and experience that I needed to do policy research and to become more involved in influencing public policy on many levels,” she says.
The fellowship was not Degutis’ first foray into public policy. She received funding earlier from the Foundation and from other organizations to study ways to reduce alcohol-related injuries and advance legislation aimed at minimizing driving under the influence of alcohol. She had also put that knowledge to use as an advocate against underage drinking and substance abuse.
As head of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Degutis now has a far broader portfolio. But she is still focused on alcohol-related injuries, which she considers a top priority. Preventing falls—one of the leading causes of visits to the emergency department—is another major concern, especially as the population ages. She also plans to build stronger partnerships within and outside of government.
“This position allows me to bring together my past experience and education in order to increase the awareness of injury as a public health issue, and to grow the field of injury prevention and control in order to adequately address the injury problem,” she said in an article published by the Yale School of Public Health. “I plan to continue to work toward the development, implementation and evaluation of policy that is science-based, and support the evaluation of prevention efforts to ensure that money directed toward them is well-spent.”