A Healthy Dose of Research

Oct. 6, 2010

UNLV nursing researchers are challenging perceptions about nursing's role in health sciences research - just in the nick of time

The changing climate of health care in America is making nursing research more important than ever. Nurses, uniquely positioned on the front lines of care both in the hospital and in the community, are perhaps in the best position of all health care professionals to identify problems and test theories.

“Whether it’s health promotion, patient or worker safety, or disease prevention, health care delivery has changed,” says Nancy York, UNLV assistant professor of nursing. “In many ways, nurses offer a unique perspective in the scientific inquiry process. And it’s that unique perspective that has and will continue to allow nurse researchers to play an even greater role in the scientific research community.”

Understanding Nursing Research

Though most will admit nursing’s role in the health care community is evolving, nursing researchers across the nation face a challenge associated with perception. Casual observers tend to overlook nursing as a field that benefits, as all do, from the performance of research. Nursing is often perceived as a professional or clinical program rather than a scholarly one; as a result, nurse researchers encounter a lack of understanding from colleagues in the scientific community about what they study.

“Most people picture nurses in a hospital or clinic because that’s what they’ve been exposed to,” says Barbara St. Pierre Schneider, associate dean for research. “While we’ve all benefited from the care of nurses in these front-lines positions – be it in a clinic, emergency room, or even at school – nurses are also working behind-the-scenes, through research, to answer the questions that will lead to better quality of life.”

For example, physicians tend to focus their research on the cause and cure of disease. Nurse researchers, on the other hand, study the physical, psychological, and social response to health and illness; that is, nurse researchers holistically address health both for the individual and the larger population. They also study patient comfort and care, effective nursing practices, and the profession of nursing itself.

“Nursing researchers don’t just look at illness, but wellness as a whole. In the end, the total health of the person is at the core,” says St. Pierre Schneider.

Driven to Discover

Through work in the classroom, in the clinic and in the community, nurse researchers are not only educating future health care leaders, they’re also working on significant health issues related to diabetes, obesity, stress and aging. Below are just a few examples of the research projects currently under way in the school.

Helping Combat Obesity: Sally Miller

With the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S., associate nursing professor Sally Miller is interested in helping obese people lose weight and keep it off.  She researches how levels of ghrelin, a hunger stimulant hormone produced in the gastrointestinal tract, fluctuate in people who have lost weight.

Ghrelin was first identified as a growth hormone less than a decade ago, and there is some suggestion that its levels rise disproportionately after someone loses weight. This increase leads to increased hunger and subsequent weight gain in some people.

“The practical implication is that you work hard to lose weight, have to adjust to diet and lifestyle changes, and then have to live with a hormone that makes you hungry all the time,” says Miller. “It’s as if you’re being punished for losing weight. There has to be a solution to this, and we’re working to find it.” 

Preventing Caregiver Depression: Michele Clark

Michele Clark is looking for ways to prevent the alarming rate of depression among caregivers of the elderly.

A nurse practitioner with more than 30 years clinical experience in the home health care setting, Clark began to notice how the complex physical and emotional needs of elders placed their family members at risk for burnout and depression.

“The common pharmacological treatments for depression can take weeks to months to show therapeutic effect, if they do at all,” Clark says. “Instead of treating caregivers once they become depressed, it seems much more appropriate to prevent depression before it occurs.”

Clark investigates how and why the act of care giving affects mood, and how a caregiver’s individual personality traits increase depression risk. She’s evaluating clinical stress assessment models for their applicability to caregivers and developing a new way to measure stress patterns specific to this population. 

Foreign-Trained Nurses and the American Workforce: Yu (Philip) Xu

As the nationwide nursing shortage persists, health care facilities are turning to foreign-trained nurses to fill staffing needs.

UNLV nursing professor Yu (Philip) Xu is one of few researchers who study how this population adjusts in the American workforce. A foreign-trained nurse himself, Xu notes that foreign-trained nurses are capable of succeeding in the U.S., but many have trouble adjusting to American culture.

“Hospitals spend upwards of $10,000 per individual to recruit foreign nurses, yet most often there is no specific orientation or cultural training for them,” says Xu. “Many do not succeed and are sent back to their home countries – a blow for hospitals, nurses, and ultimately patients. In a field where good communication is a necessity, there has to be a better way.”

Xu and a team of UNLV researchers developed “Speak for Success,” the nation’s first research-based, comprehensive language and communication training program for currently employed foreign-trained nurses. The program is funded by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and is designed to bolster both language and communications skills.

Sustainability and Community Health: Nancy Menzel 

Associate professor of nursing Nancy Menzel believes that a healthy community is a sustainable community.

“Without healthy people, a city is not sustainable,” says Menzel. “A city’s most valuable resource is its people. Government and business leaders must view public health as an investment in the future.”

Recently, Menzel has focused on workplace health and safety for nurses. Her research proved that instructing students on the use of safe lifting equipment positively affects the likelihood that care facilities will adopt safe lifting programs, reducing both workplace injuries and employee turnover.

“Many injured nurses leave the field forever,” says Menzel. “It’s not an effective or sustainable practice to invest funding and time to produce more nurses only to have them leave the field due to an injury through unsafe manual handling of patients. It’s obviously harmful to the nurses themselves, and it’s detrimental to the profession.”