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New degree program unites Nursing, Biomedical Engineering

BY: NANCY HUMPHREY

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1/08/1999 - Nurse Annagreta Birch, here with five-year-old patient Tyler Miles, is enrolled in an innovative new dual degree between the schools of Nursing and Engineering. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

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Vanderbilt's new dual degree program will help Robert Palmer pursue his interest in the field of medical informatics. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

When Annagreta Birch becomes a practicing neonatal nurse practitioner five years from now, she will bring with her much more than just a working knowledge of the equipment used to keep tiny premature infants alive.

Thanks to an innovative educational program now available at Vanderbilt, Birch will be armed with a Masters degree in Nursing and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, enabling her to modify existing equipment or perhaps to develop new devices to deliver better care to these infants.

Birch is one of two Vanderbilt University School of Nursing students enrolled in a new dual degree program between VUSN and the Vanderbilt School of Engineering. Both students are graduates of the undergraduate program in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt. The new program allows students to graduate with an M.S.N. in Nursing and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering.

The program, similar to the M.D./Ph.D. degree, is a five-year course ‹ two years in the M.S.N. program and three in the Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program. The idea came about when Dr. Thomas R. Harris, professor and chair of Biomedical Engineering, approached Linda D. Norman, R.N., associate dean of the School of Nursing, with the proposal.

"The M.D./Ph.D. program is focused on training health care providers who could then do research in developing devices for assessment, diagnosis and treatment. The M.D. degree gives the student a full understanding of what¹s needed in patient care and the Ph.D. would give them the ability to do research, design and development," Norman said.

"But patients have many needs that are going to be treated by other health care providers ‹ nursing care monitoring, assistive devices, or different types of care provided by the nurse," Norman said.

"We think this program will prepare students to work on patient-centered technologies and perform the basic research that leads to such advances," Harris said.

Graduates can expect research careers and to join academic departments of biomedical engineering or nursing as teacher-scientists. Harris said graduates will be sought by the health care industry for advanced research on medical devices and technology.

"The program will produce graduates who are truly Œhigh-tech, high touch¹ professionals," Harris said.

Birch became interested in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when she was involved in a design project there last year.

"Due to the highly technological nature of this environment, I realized there was much opportunity for biomedical engineering advances. The idea of the joint program is attractive from the viewpoint of both nursing and engineering. One realization that has become evident is that neither field has much contact with the other. While nurses know when and how to operate the medical equipment, they are not all aware of how the technology was designed. On the other hand, engineers have the technical knowledge, but don¹t always have the experience of working with the patients and procedures.

"Ultimately, someone with this unique combination of backgrounds should be a valuable resource to both engineering and nursing," Birch said.

The program is primarily funded by the Whitaker Foundation, a private, non-profit foundation dedicated to improving human health through the support of biomedical engineering. Since its inception, the foundation¹s biomedical engineering research programs have awarded nearly $320 million to colleges and universities for faculty research, graduate fellowships and program development.

The foundation currently supports 315 faculty research projects, 142 graduate fellows and more than 80 education and internship programs at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

In the Vanderbilt program, the students¹ tuition will be paid by the foundation and they will receive a stipend during the five years of study.

Robert Palmer is the other M.S.N./Ph.D. nursing student involved in the program. Palmer¹s area of expertise is health systems management, specifically the organization and use of information systems for different parts of the health care system.

Palmer will work in medical informatics upon completion of his degree. He plans to become part of the integration of technology into the hospital and medical technology into a patient¹s home, focusing on medical instrumentation devices and patient monitoring devices.

"I feel that this was a good option for me, an option of opportunity and promise. It will allow me to write my own direction in an area that hasn¹t really been explored," he said.

Norman said health care equipment that assists patients who have chronic illnesses might be a result of the new program.

"Take IV monitoring systems, for instance. Nurses would have a unique approach in knowing what needs to be done differently from the way they¹re currently designed. The people who know what¹s involved in delivering that care are the ones who really know the nuances of what needs to be in place to have a system that really works."

"I¹m very excited about the program," Norman said. "The students are in two very different parts of health care, making this a unique system."

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