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Nurses have helped NM thrive

When patients seek health care, nurses are the providers with whom they tend to interact the most – and who therefore often have an outsized impact on their health outcomes.

But nurses don’t just care for the sick: they are at the forefront of transforming health care delivery, research and policy. The University of New Mexico College of Nursing faculty understands this and has made it the cornerstone of their efforts to educate our state’s nursing workforce for more than half a century.

This fall, as the college marks the 60th anniversary of enrolling its first class, it is a good time to reflect on its many accomplishments and look to the future to see how nurses will help us adapt to a rapidly changing health care environment.

The story begins in the decades following World War II. New Mexico’s population was growing rapidly, and there were concerns about the lack of registered nurses to meet the state’s health care needs. In the early 1950s, Marion Fleck and Mary Jane Carter worked with then-UNM President Tom Popejoy to secure funding for a new College of Nursing.

The New Mexico Legislature appropriated $60,000 in the spring of 1955 to establish the state’s first bachelor of science in nursing program. The college opened its doors under the guidance of Dean Eleanor King in September 1955, enrolling 17 students in the first class. Twenty-five percent of those students were Native American, reflecting our state’s diversity.

The college soon won accreditation and graduated the first BSN students in 1959. Later, it expanded the baccalaureate program to accept registered nurses for completion of their upper division nursing major.

The family nurse practitioner program was launched in 1970 in partnership with the School of Medicine. New Mexico would become one of the first states to grant nurses independent practice and prescriptive authority, meaning they could provide primary care without being under a doctor’s medical license.

A graduate program was proposed in 1975, and the advanced-practice master of science in nursing degree started in 1978. Today, the college offers master’s degrees in four advanced practice nursing concentrations. Most of these graduates remain in New Mexico to practice in underserved communities, helping to address our state’s health disparities.

The college also offers a doctorate degree with concentrations in health policy and directed general studies and recently launched a doctor of nursing practice program in nurse executive organizational leadership.

The nursing faculty are nationally known for their research in health care systems and quality, rural and community health, health disparities involving unique cultural groups, symptom management, women and children’s health, complementary therapies, oncology and research methods.

The college has also helped launch the New Mexico Nursing Education Consortium, which has promoted a consistent curriculum for university and community college nursing programs and improved the state’s capacity to graduate BSN-educated nurses.

Through a unique partnership with the VA Health Care System, the college is also preparing students to serve a growing population of military veterans with complex health care needs in diverse settings.

The demand for health care is growing as more people gain insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, physician assistants and other providers will increasingly work together in coordinated teams to meet this need.

I am confident that in this rapidly evolving health care landscape, our College of Nursing will continue to graduate superbly trained caring, competent professionals – and the people of New Mexico will benefit.

Dr. Paul B. Roth is also chancellor for Health Sciences at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center and dean of the UNM School of Medicine.