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by Amy Sitze
T he parents of 3-year-old Sara (not her real name) were at their wits' end. Their daughter, who suffered from several neurological and gastrointestinal conditions, had been treated at two different hospitals by an array of specialists. Her parents had received conflicting information on medications, were confused about dosages, and were trying to figure out whether their medical insurance would cover a feeding pump their daughter needed.
That's when they met Jody Chrastek, pain and palliative care coordinator at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. Though she's a nurse by training and education—she received her master's and doctorate degrees in nursing at the U of M—she says one of the most important roles she plays is navigator. "Our health care system is so complicated these days that it's very difficult to navigate," she says. "If you're facing a life crisis, you're already emotionally spent, and you've got all these doctors and appointments and medications. It can be really hard. The role of the nurse as a coordinator who sees the bigger picture is really important."
Chrastek worked with Sara's family to guide them through the healthcare maze they were facing. She adjusted their daughter's medication schedule so they no longer had to wake up in the middle of the night to give her pills. She made sure they chose a feeding pump and related equipment that would be covered by their insurance. And, perhaps most important, she patiently listened to their concerns and answered all their questions.
In her expanding role as a health-care advocate and guide—someone who coordinates a patient's interactions with pharmacists, specialists, primary-care physicians, and others—Chrastek isn't alone. The profession of nursing has changed drastically in recent years, giving nurses broader and deeper responsibilities, says Connie Delaney, dean of the U of M's School of Nursing.
For example, electronic health records and mobile technologies have changed the way nurses and other health-care providers communicate with patients and with each other. Nurses also provide more home-based care than ever before; in fact, it's estimated that 50 percent of care now occurs in patients' homes.
Nurses have to keep up with these changing realities, says Delaney—and so does nursing education. That's why the School of Nursing is building a new high-tech teaching lab to replace the 25-year-old facility currently used by approximately 850 bachelor's, master's, and doctoral students. Supported by a $3.65 million gift from the Bentson Foundation—the largest in the history of the School of Nursing—the Healthy Communities Innovation Center will simulate various health-care settings (such as hospitals, emergency rooms, long-term care facilities, and patients' homes) that reflect the environments in which nursing students will be working when they graduate.
"The Bentson Foundation, like us, believes that what matters is making a difference in people's lives," says Delaney. "They wanted to invest in something that had the capacity to change nursing. Not just nursing here, but nursing as a profession."
Because nurses need to collaborate with physicians and other health- care providers as part of interprofessional teams, students using the new lab will learn from simulated case studies that are jointly designed by the School of Nursing and other disciplines within the health sciences. They'll also learn to use new forms of health-care technology such as electronic health records and mobile devices that can travel from clinics to homes.
The Healthy Communities Innovation Center, which will be four times the size of the current facility, will be finished by December and begin educating the next generation of nurses in January 2013. Thanks to the generosity of the Bentson Foundation and other donors, the School of Nursing has already raised close to $6 million of the $7.8 million project cost.
For U of M nursing alumni like Jody Chrastek, the change can't come too soon. "As there's more pressure to perform and more pressure to do more with less, nurses can be strong patient advocates," she says. "It's important that we teach our nurses how to do that."