Nurses bring an important perspective to research that is often overlooked or undervalued. Few other scientists are interested in studying nursing practice, which is the majority of what occurs in the hospital. As nursing science has matured, the issue of nursing research in clinical settings has risen to the forefront as an important contribution to health care and health policy.
Nurse scientists identify research questions, design and conduct scientific studies, collect and analyze data, and report their findings. Many teach in academic settings and often write articles and research reports for professional journals and publications. Some conduct their hands-on research onsite at the hospital. Nurse researchers often partner with scientists in other fields, such as pharmacy, nutrition, medicine and engineering, to better address complex questions and problems.
Having an on-site nurse scientist, particularly in a teaching hospital, can lead to scientific breakthroughs that combine research with the real world. You can scale a study across a whole patient population and compare results to a controlled trial. Are there side effects or unintended consequences when outcomes of new treatments are tracked for longer periods? Nurses tend to ask these questions, and it’s a step in a positive direction that hospitals are valuing this role.
An added benefit to hospitals is that the presence of a nurse scientist appears to have a snowball effect. Entire nursing staffs become proficient at both asking questions and answering them in rigorous, evidence-based ways. Appreciating the value of “why” becomes infectious.
According to an article in University of California San Francisco (UCSF) School of Nursing's Science of Caring, the positive effects for patients show up in ways both big and small, for example: reduced infections, reduced falls, decreased lengths of stay, healthier babies, more-informed parents, reduced readmissions, and improved transitions from hospital to home.
With its creation of an Institute for Nursing Excellence and the hiring of a second nurse scientist, UCSF Medical Center has made a distinctive commitment to hospital-based nursing research.
As another example, nurse scientists allow Columbia University School of Nursing to pursue interdisciplinary studies across a variety of health care fields. Being part of a major academic medical center, the school’s distinguished faculty of nurse scientists is deeply engaged in discovering best practices in clinical care and public health.
Of course, not all hospital administrations have the same priorities or budgets, so there is nothing uniform about the on-site nurse scientist’s role. However, generally they bring existing research findings to the bedside, guide and encourage small tests of change and quality improvement projects, and either independently or in collaboration with nursing school faculty, oversee publishable, big research projects.
All of these duties are rooted in the model of how knowledge is created and transferred – from discovery (primary or secondary research) to application (testing whether a new discovery or process is safe for patients) to applying the new knowledge across the board for patients and families. On-site nurse scientists are also the conduit for frontline nurses to be involved in more research opportunities than in the past.
Another thing nurse scientists do is engage other hospitals. Networking at conferences is a great opportunity for nurse scientists to meet others and ask amazing questions about how research has helped improve care at the bedside.
If you're looking to expand your career, getting into research is a very promising option. With an average annual salary of $95,000, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19% growth rate for nurse scientists between the year 2012 and 2022, a faster than average rate compared many other careers.
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