Doctor of nursing practice degree programs skyrocketing

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Alexandra Wilson Pecci, for HealthLeaders Media, May 29, 2012

"But they don't have enough education."

That's one of the arguments that physicians make against autonomy for advanced practice nurses. But that argument will slowly erode away as more and more nurses get their Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees.

In just a few short years, the number of DNP programs in the country has skyrocketed from 20 in the year 2006 to 184 in 2011. An additional 101 programs are in the planning stages, according to data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The AACN also reports that DNP programs are available in 40 states plus the District of Columbia.

One of those states is Louisiana, where Loyola University New Orleans has just graduated its first class of 18 doctoral students from the state's only DNP program. Loyola has two DNP options: a two-year post-master's program and a three-year post baccalaureate program. The program there started in 2010 and just accepted its third class.

Before DNP programs, doctoral degrees in nursing were research-focused, says to Gwen George, R.N., D.N.P., F.N.P., B.C., assistant professor of nursing and coordinator for the DNP program at Loyola. But many nurses who wanted advanced degrees didn't want to be researchers; they wanted to take care of patients.

"There wasn't a degree that fit them," she tells HealthLeaders Media.

As its name implies, the DNP is a practice-focused degree, and graduates are not only poised to become influential nurse leaders, but to close the research gap in nursing practice.

"There is a long gap between when knowledge is generated and when it's actually implemented into practice widely," George says. "We'll be able to bring research to the bedside more quickly because we'll have people have people actually engaged in practice who are looking at the literature."

As leaders, DNPs will be instrumental in trickling that knowledge down throughout their departments. For example, George says, if a hospital has a problem with patient falls, the DNP would look at the recent literature about preventing falls and figure out how that information can be applied in that situation, getting involvement from everyone who interacts with patients."It will get the staff nurses at all levels more engaged in what research can do at the bedside," George says.

In addition to translating research into practice, George says the doctoral degree itself is important to the nursing profession. In fact, 2004, the AACN set a goal "that preparation for specialization in nursing should occur at the doctoral level by 2015."

"Parity in education is very important. When you have medical physicians being trained at the doctoral level it's important that nurses have similar standards," George says. She points to other disciplines, such as pharmacy and physical therapy, which both have moved to the doctoral level.

"Nursing was a little late to come to the table," she says. "But that's where our profession needs to be…you speak with more authority."

Parity in education is also critical to advanced practice nurses' fight for autonomy. Whether the DNP will silence critics is unclear—perhaps even unlikely—but George says the typical physician argument that nurses don't have sufficient education will be certainly flimsier.

"The argument will be less relevant because they have a terminal degree and we have a terminal degree," she says.

Source: HealthLeaders Media