The Dean’s Blog

How Did We Get to “More Is Always Better” – and Other Essential Questions on Aging

David Vlahov

Anthropologist Sharon Kaufman is one of the original members of the Institute for Health & Aging (IHA), which on November 9 celebrated its 30th anniversary. The event brought together scientists who had flourished in the Institute and made significant contributions to our understanding of health at the individual and societal level.

At the celebration, Kaufman drew on her recently released book, Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives, and Where to Draw the Line (Duke University Press, 2015), to speak about the struggle in health care between the desire to prolong life and the desire to avoid crossing the line to “too much” care. Exploring that dilemma led her to examine the larger engines of the biomedical economy: the research and insurance industries and their impact on what we do when life is at stake.

Kaufman spoke of “the hidden chain of connections among science, politics, industry and insurance that drives the US health care system,” noting especially that clinical trials sponsored by the multibillion dollar biomedical research engine are at the heart of our increasing reliance on evidence-based care, which can be a good thing. But it’s important to remain aware that in the past 25 years, the number of trials that private and profit-driven pharma, device and biotech companies fund has more than doubled.

As these trials generate more evidence of therapeutic value, they also generate an ever-increasing number of standard – that is, difficult to refuse – treatment options. Our prioritizing of new therapies and technologies magnifies this effect, because it influences our collective perspective on the timing of death. Today in the US, says Kaufman, we consider most deaths premature, regardless of the age of the deceased.

As evidence of the phenomenon, she spoke of the implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD). When clinical trials showed good survival rates and Medicare began to reimburse for its use, the ICD became a therapy that shifted from unthinkable a decade or so ago to routine and standard care for older persons with moderate to severe heart disease in the US. The floodgates were open.

Here’s the catch, notes Kaufman. In treating a potentially lethal arrhythmia, the ICD prevents sudden death (the silent heart attack in the night) – precisely the kind of death many say they actually want late in life. Yet the device is difficult to refuse, because doing so seems to go against medical progress and common sense.

Kaufman’s eloquent presentation distills the essence of a societal quandary nurses, physicians, patients and families must face together. It also exemplifies the value of our Institute for Health & Aging.

The IHA has been a vital incubator – not just for investigators, but also for work that has built models for improving health and, more fundamentally, how we think about health. Past work includes that of giants such as Carroll Estes, Bob Newcomer, Dorothy Rice and Patrick Fox, all of whom produced groundbreaking work on everything from Social Security and Medicare to long-term care, Alzheimer’s disease and the societal costs of tobacco, alcohol and drug use.

Today, in addition to Kaufman and IHA Director Wendy Max, the groundbreaking work emerges from other marvelous investigators, including a few the celebration highlighted: Marsha Michie on bioethics and genomics, Julene Johnson on arts and aging or Brooke Hollister on understanding the impact of reform on Medicare and Medicaid.

In each of these cases, the Institute’s investigators ask the absolutely essential questions about how scientific and medical advances change how we age and how we die. Their role and expertise have never been more important.


Harm Reduction

David Vlahov

A June 2015 report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found drug overdose is now the leading cause of deaths from injury in the United States. Rural Indiana recently found itself wrestling with an outbreak of HIV among drug users.

These findings and events represent human tragedies; what’s worse is that in many cases, the deaths and HIV transmissions were either preventable or, at least, ripe for mitigation. The problem is that as a country we are still trying to get comfortable with an approach to substance abuse known as “harm reduction.”

In this month’s Science of Caring, we ran a story about faculty at our School who are working to advance this strategy, which is based on minimizing risk through policies, programs and/or individual practices. It is an approach that meets people where they are rather than making judgments about where they should be in terms of their personal health or lifestyle.

Take the case of the illicit drug user who is vulnerable to or can transmit HIV infection but can’t stop his or her drug dependence. For many years, the approach to these individuals was often some combination of “just say no” and incarceration. Yet when the HIV epidemic came along, harm reduction emerged as an alternative strategy. The idea was to make drug abuse treatment accessible, but to also give illicit drug users access to sterile needles and bleach for syringe disinfection. To move in that direction, communities needed to learn and embrace what harm reduction strategies could offer, and legislators at various levels needed to change policies.

My own research and that of numerous others has found that harm reduction strategies are very effective in reducing the rate of new HIV infection among drug users. Yet before these data could be turned into policy, we needed to address politicians’ concerns. In my work, we responded to political concerns by conducting studies on the possible negative consequences of community-based access to sterile syringes. Our data from pilot projects showed that access to sterile needles in communities did not increase drug use, nor did it increase sharing of needles, reduce the rate of users going into drug treatment, leave contaminated needles on the street, encourage youth to start drug use or increase crime. That was a turning point. Communities came to see the value of harm reduction, and policies and programs changed. Outreach and education have now enabled these programs to become more widespread.

In short, harm reduction is highly effective in preventing death and containing harmful behaviors associated with using drugs. We know as well that harm reduction strategies – such as public education campaigns to safely store medications away from children, and the distribution of naloxone to police and medics to rapidly reverse the effects of opioid overdose – can be very effective in preventing drug overdose deaths.

Nevertheless, the acceptance of harm reduction remains incomplete, despite evidence of its success in many areas, including some that transcend the transmission of HIV or drug overdose. For example, to prevent automobile-related injuries and deaths, we’ve implemented multiple forms of harm reduction, from public information campaigns against drunk driving to engineering solutions such as the placement of taillights at the view level of the driver behind a braking car, crumple zones for crashes, air bags, and collapsible guardrails and streetlight poles. Such strategies have worked.

It’s likely and understandable that the reluctance to apply harm reduction strategies to illicit drug use comes from a complex social psychology tied to concerns that we are somehow sanctioning the use of these drugs. It is time, however, to recognize the evidence. We have had success in reducing needle transmission of HIV and complications related to drug overdose. We have faculty who are expanding this work, making progress on addressing challenges and creating promising strategies to reduce HIV risk related to binge drinking. It is time for health care professionals to incorporate harm reduction as an important, evidence-based public health tool that we should use whenever our clinical judgment deems it necessary.


Why Nursing Science Matters

David Vlahov

When nursing is the topic of conversation, terms such as expert clinical knowledge, authentic compassion, keen observation, organized patient management, complex care coordination and passionate advocacy flow easily.

Outside of the nursing community, however, when I talk about nursing science – nursing research – I often get blank looks and questions like: Why are nurses doing research? What distinguishes nursing science from medical research?

Given our powerful, but often unsung, impact on the quality of countless patients’ lives, it disturbs me that people don’t understand what we do. So allow me to try to explain.

Put simply, nurse scientists generate questions geared toward improving how clinicians and patients administer care and manage conditions. Such questions emerge from a unique nursing lens, which is always focused on detecting, understanding and responding to signs and symptoms that our patients experience. In a health care world moving toward – and certainly benefiting from – diagnosis and treatment that relies increasingly on sophisticated technology, it’s absolutely essential we not lose sight of the patient experience. It’s what provides health care’s critical balance.

Let’s take an example. In most intensive care units, a cacophony of alarms, whooshing and clicking sounds assaults the senses of the nurses monitoring and caring for the patients. Nurses know these alarms make it difficult for patients to sleep. We witness the distress alarms cause for family and other visitors. Worse, the constant noise, some of it unnecessary, can inure the nurse so that he or she misses an important event. Known as “alarm fatigue,” this phenomenon can make intensive care an unsettling and, at times, unsafe experience.

Nurse scientists such as UCSF’s Barbara Drew have insisted that we can engineer a safer nursing care environment. She and newly recruited faculty member and bioengineer Xiao Hu are collecting millions of data points and deriving algorithms so alarms can better predict clinical events. If Drew and Hu’s early results are validated, it will help some remarkable technology achieve its original purpose of providing precisely targeted advanced warning without all the unnecessary noise.

The point is that it is nurse scientists whose experience positions them to raise such questions, assemble the team to address the need, put methods together to gather the data and bring their lens to an analysis that is most likely to uncover the right answers for both nurses and patients.

Similarly, consider symptom assessment and management, something nurses have been studying for decades – and something that has a deep and lasting effect on patients. Some of the most impressive work in this area has been on the pain, nausea and fatigue associated with cancer and chemotherapy. During the past decade, nurse scientist Chris Miaskowski and geneticist Brad Aouizerat from our faculty have gone beyond measuring self-reported symptoms to uncover genetic markers for pain associated with cancer chemotherapy. The hope is that adding genetic information to data from self-reports and physical signs can help us improve how we anticipate and effectively manage pain. While colleagues in other fields study genetic markers and mechanisms for diagnosis and treatment, nursing science focuses on symptoms because patient experience tells us that pain associated with cancer chemotherapy remains an unmet challenge.

One more example: At the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Mary Naylor has clearly defined best practices for transitional care from hospitals to community. Such work is especially important today, as the health care reform movement has identified transitional care as an essential component in people maintaining and improving their health after a hospital stay. We are delighted to have Mary Naylor join us this year as a Presidential Chair, so we can learn from her work and generate our own.

There are, of course, thousands of other examples, both big and small, where nurse scientists’ unique lens helps build the science that is improving both individual and population health. So at a time when everyone in health care is trying to achieve the elusive balance between high-tech and high-touch care, it is high time for people to fully recognize nurse scientists’ critical contribution to the discussion.


Examples of where nursing research is done/needed, as addressed in this article, are very much appreciated. In the past, I thought there was too little research done in the areas where nurses dominate in terms of the time spent in direct contact serving clients. It was my impression that "nurse research" in the past took on too much of what was more directly related to the role of other health professionals, especially doctors. Your last paragraph says it all. And your initial explanation should make it clearer to those outside the profession, those who give you those "blank looks," a better understanding of what it is and how important it is in furthering the objectives of the profession of nursing. Before I drop dead (now 82 years old), while no longer directly connected to the practice, I hope to be able to share experiences in writing that may inspire research in the field of diminishing if not eliminating the FEAR, at any age, of the dying process and death itself. Nora Maliepaard-Martinis, '58.
Agree indeed, Research is the lens to improve nursing practices and to develop better patient care policies to better serve ours clients and communities. Nursing research is the fundamental for the survival of nursing as a science. By practicing evidence based nursing science is that our profession is more competitive and secures a safe patient care. Hegla Fielding RN, MSN, CNS

Getting the Most from Nursing Research

David Vlahov

This month, a Science of Caring article highlights research that provides important insights into the health needs of older adults living alone. Among the story’s unspoken questions is this one: How does a school of nursing decide where to focus its research efforts?

This is a more complex challenge than one might expect, as nursing research covers a wide range of topics in its efforts to improve patient care and community health, as well as shape health policy. At UC San Francisco School of Nursing, we are in the process of defining criteria that will help shape and sharpen our research themes moving forward.

This rigorous process includes consideration not just of demographic trends and public health priorities, but also of trends in science, health care delivery, health professions, human capital and resources. As we sharpen our focus, we also build in safeguards to ensure the criteria are not exclusionary. Our university has a culture of “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” and we want our faculty to follow both their hearts and their minds. That said, the criteria do provide a framework to guide our discussion as we develop a strategic plan for the School.

Aging emerged here early as a research theme. With Wendy Max and Julene Johnson from the Institute for Health & Aging and Chris Miaskowski and Meg Wallhagen from the Department of Physiological Nursing leading the way, here’s how the framework guided our interest in aging:

  • Demographic trends indicate that the percentage of the US population aged 65 and older will increase from 13 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2030. Worldwide, the percentage of people aged 65 or older is expected to grow from 8 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2050.
  • In terms of public health priorities, we can expect an increase in chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and dementia. The number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease could be as high as 13.8 million by 2050, with the cost to the nation of Alzheimer’s and other dementias rising to $1.1 trillion.
  • From a care perspective, older adults have expressed a desire for independence, with satisfactory physical and cognitive functioning, in their later years. Achieving this goal requires knowledge about many factors that surround healthy aging, including self-care, a responsive system of health care, and housing and transportation design.
  • From a health professions perspective, the number of physicians entering and practicing geriatric medicine is small and declining. Nursing has and can continue to fill the gap; research plays a role in optimizing the care that our nurses can provide.
  • Trends in the conduct of science include interdisciplinary teams. For example, we have geriatric research expertise in three separate departments; a fabulous relationship with the UCSF Division of Geriatrics in the Department of Medicine; and strong partnerships with other medical centers, community agencies and community organizations, including a strong portfolio of active research programs and education for emerging investigators and leaders.

We believe the thoughtful development of research themes not only helps us achieve a critical mass of the finest research talent, but also helps us recruit world-class faculty and attract the best and brightest students. We are currently working toward other research themes – which we will share with you at a later time – that will enable us to further leverage our collaborations and achieve synergies in research, education and service both within UCSF and with our sister nursing schools around the world.


Accepting and Understanding the Value of Gratitude

David Vlahov

Many years ago, while nursing in a coronary care unit, I had a patient who ran a kosher deli. Each day, his family would arrive with a heaping tray of pastrami and corned beef, the best deli treats I’d ever had. At first, I was uncomfortable with the family’s gifts; I was just doing my job. Eventually, though, I recognized both the family’s sincerity and the hurt I was inflicting by not accepting their gift. Their look of happiness when I did accept has always stayed with me.

Another time, at a busy mall, a middle-aged man approached me from a mass of shoppers and squinted intently at me. He seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Then his squint evolved into elation. He waved his wife over, pointed at me and said in a possessive tone that I was his nurse. He spoke of being admitted to the coronary care unit, wondering if he would survive. After I wheeled him on a stretcher and transferred him into bed, I told him, “You got yourself in here. We’re going to get you out.” He said that he knew then he was in good hands. Yet once more I was embarrassed by the attention for merely doing my job. There was an awkward silence, and looking back, I realize I stifled his desire to give thanks.

This is a common experience for many nurses. Perhaps we take what we do for granted and find it difficult to accept our patients’ gratitude. Yet the older I get, the more I understand how important it is not just to accept their appreciation, but to use it as a way to build on the things we do well, just as constructive criticism is a way to correct our deficiencies. These situations are, in fact, opportunities to deepen our connections and grow as nurses – to speak with our patients and former patients about just how meaningful their gratitude can be.

And when the gratitude comes in the form of donations to our education, it is extraordinarily meaningful and valuable. After all, data show that better-educated nurses lead to better clinical outcomes – and schools of nursing are the only way to produce the teachers and leaders that assure quality nursing education across the country.

Now is an especially important time to support nursing education. The impending nursing shortage will be hard to address because we don’t have enough doctorally prepared teachers. The debt many who might seek such preparation would incur is a significant disincentive – and the means to get help with costs are shrinking. Government support has declined. Hospitals and clinics have tighter budgets, so they find it harder to support their nurses’ continuing education.

Thus, rather than shuffle uncomfortably when we are offered thanks, now is the time to encourage our grateful patients to support nursing education, so we can produce the next generation of highly skilled nurses, leaders and educators. That type of gratitude delivers huge returns for patients, families and society.

Featured Articles

November 2015
Kathy Dracup Honored – Dean Emerita and Professor Emerita Kathleen Dracup is one of the UCSF Medal winners for 2015.
November 2015
Honoring Veterans – Two UCSF military veterans tell the stories of their service.
November 2015
Nurses Help UCSF Explore the Role of Telehealth – Nursing staff at UCSF Medical Center – including MS-HAIL graduate Tristin Penland – play an important role in advancing telehealth.
October 2015
The Heart of the Matter: From Families and Heart Disease to the Warm Heart of Africa – In the 35th Helen Nahm Research Lecture, UCSF’s Sally Rankin looked back at a lifetime working to improve the health of families across the globe.
October 2015
Understanding the Role of US Graduate Schools of Nursing in Global Health – When five faculty members from a newly established Center for Global Health attended the International Council of Nurses and Council of National Nursing Association Representatives conference in Seoul, South Korea, they came away with a renewed sense of how good global health depends on nurses becoming true global citizens.