IU School of Nursing’s DNP program prepares transformative healthcare leaders

According to the most recent data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), there are 264 active DNP programs with over 18,000 nurses enrolled in the United States. Indiana University School of Nursing established its distance accessible DNP program in 2010.

This past year marked the program’s fourth anniversary, so IU School of Nursing faculty, led by Julie Meek, PhD, RN, coordinator for the DNP program, surveyed the healthcare landscape in these changing times, and took stock. The DNP program was doing well. It had graduated well-prepared and successful DNP professionals. The question, however, was where do we go from here to attract students in an extremely competitive environment and how do we grow with the changing times?

“We have a wonderful tradition of community partnerships. So, when we were considering how to advance the DNP program, it seemed so natural to ask the executive nurse leaders in our community what they needed from our graduates to move their organizations to the next level,” said Dr. Meek. Five key themes emerged from those conversations:

•    Leadership
•    Implementation Science/Evaluation & Transition of Evidence into Practice Methods
•    Business
•    Information & Technology Management
•    Policy/Ethics/Law

IUSON’s community partners wanted increased support for those nurse leaders who were ready to take a greater role in transforming healthcare across a variety of settings. When joined with the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) and American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) competencies, Meek and her colleagues could see the changes necessary. “We already had an incredibly strong DNP program, a solid foundation. Now, we could take the extra steps to deliver a more robust and targeted nurse executive leadership doctorate,” said Meek.

In a rapid improvement process Dr. Meek and her team changed the order in which students took courses, reframed the capstone project, and added a robust professional development component to prepare nurses, used to scrubs and clinical environments, to excel in the c-suite. 

The capstone project was perhaps the greatest and most visible change. Previously, DNP students completed a final, translational science project in partnership with an outside organization. With a new executive leadership focus, community partners advised that students have multiple interdisciplinary, authentic case study projects that would enable students to exercise executive leadership skills as they were solving real-world problems. A ground-breaking capstone experience was born.

Called the DNP Capstone Portfolio, it is a series of seven credits contained in a course called D749: Practica-Advanced Topics. The interprofessional component is actually a series of three 1-credit courses taken over the course of three semesters. IU School of Nursing, IU School of Informatics & Computing, IUPUI Department of Communication Studies, Herron School of Art & Design, and the Bioengineering Department of Purdue School of Engineering and Technology all came together to create the structure and content. D749 is open to students in these collaborating schools as well as IU nursing students – this interdisciplinary approach to a graduate capstone experience is a first for Indiana University.

Students form a cohort that remains together for all three semesters. They are introduced to a real-world case at the start of the semester and then do some pre-work before arriving on campus. While onsite, students meet and interact with the case’s stakeholders and collaborate to finalize solution sets. Each team presents their solution using a ‘shark tank’ type competition model and writes a reflective paper post-competition. Faculty from the collaborative schools select and design the cases and act as coaches and evaluators for the assigned teams. The cases become more complex as the students move through the program.
In addition to the interprofessional credits, students also complete two credits of professional leadership development with Dr. Jeni Embree, where they apply what they’re learning in their leadership courses to their own professional leadership development plan. Examples of learning activities include strength-finding assessments, professional image development, mentor relationships, professional organization involvement, and receiving health coaching sessions.

The final two credits of D749 are tailored by each student to immerse them in their areas of focus. Students often use these credits to work on projects through the Office of Global Affairs with Dr. Mary Beth Riner or to advance their policy skills at the state or national levels under the guidance of Dr. Sharron Crowder.
Student reaction to the new capstone portfolio experiences has been tremendously positive. They value the opportunities to apply what they are learning to authentic case studies.  Kaycee Nickell noted the following in her reflection paper –

It was a privilege to be a part of the first Interprofessional Experience (IPE) group. The opportunity to work with students from other disciplines was an honor and a powerful learning experience. Our group of four worked together for weeks leading up to the on-campus experience and felt confident in the product and solution we had developed. With two nurses, one communications student, and one engineer, we were a strong team with a great pitch. I gained a wealth of knowledge from my teammates and major takeaways from this experience include learning to create a financial plan, conducting a market analysis, and targeting a specific population of stakeholders.

Two cohorts of students have been admitted to the re-tooled program and the future looks very bright. Dr. Meek sums it up this way, “The ‘nursing lens’ is so critical to solving the complex problems in today’s healthcare environment. It looks so much different than it did even five years ago. Leadership is done in teams with experts at the table who can cross defined boundaries to create new, forward-thinking solutions. That’s what nursing has always been about and we want to help prepare those individuals who want a seat at that table.”