Launching Assistant Professors

February 2015
David Vlahov

While attending a recent meeting of nursing faculty leaders from across the country, a small group of us from research-intensive schools met informally to compare notes. One of the topics was protected time for junior faculty on the tenure track: how much to provide and for how long to new assistant professors, and senior faculty’s expectations about how to accommodate such time.

There was no single shared vision across schools, but for me it is impossible to discuss this idea of protected time without looking at its role in an entire career arc.

For tenure-track junior faculty in research-intensive universities, progression through the academic ranks typically demands active research that advances knowledge, excellence in teaching and advising, and service to the academic institution, the profession and the community. Institutions vary in the proportion of effort devoted to each part of the academic mission, as well as the metric for productivity within each part, but many provide protected research time for the first year. The assumption is that new faculty members need time to become oriented to the culture of the institution and academia, write manuscripts that provide a foundation for a program of research and prepare and submit grant proposals that will fund work that advances knowledge.

The ideal is to recruit new faculty members who are already building on their dissertation and postdoctoral research topic to establish themselves as credible candidates to steward funding that produces new knowledge. Yet even for an ideal new faculty member, solid funding for research typically takes at least one and often two or three years to arrive, so providing time – and mentoring – to get proposals started is essential.

Doctoral programs prepare students in scholarship, but in many cases, doctoral work is a more solitary experience. Successful science involves collaborations across disciplines, so protected time does not mean isolated time. New faculty need to learn how to complete academic work in a more complex setting, one with a longer list of expectations and shorter deadlines. In this context, mentors are crucial resources who encourage, guide and connect new faculty members to people and programs that stimulate energy, creativity and productivity.

Protected time also implies a responsibility to the institution beyond one’s own research track – a time to learn to teach with an experienced professor and become engaged in the academic community. Senior faculty mentor on how to manage all of these challenges to succeed in the academic community.

The end of this initial period and promotion to associate professor is often an enormous relief. Yet unless the protected time and mentoring have been employed wisely, this next phase can also come as a shock. The workload in research, teaching and service actually increases. The metric for promotion to full professor is not only productivity in each area, but also evidence of leadership that includes mentoring new faculty, taking on more students and serving on committees that plan the future of the school.

Full professorship comes with even more responsibility. The expectation is to become a role model and transmitter for the culture of academia at one’s institution.

While this discussion is about faculty in the tenure track, the needs are the same for the clinical faculty – growing junior faculty to become the leaders for tomorrow.

We need to carefully manage our investment of protected research time and mentoring for new faculty. This is not solely a period for them to write and submit manuscripts and grants. It is also a support system that enables these talented individuals to grow into full citizens and leaders in the academic community – ones who attract high-caliber colleagues, bright students and the resources needed to tackle the questions that will lead to improved science.

NPs, Expanded Scope and the Need for Team-Based Health Care

January 2015
David Vlahov

My most recent blog post – which commented on an Academic Medicine article titled “Primary Care Workforce Shortages and Career Recommendations from Practicing Clinicians” – touched a nerve with some readers. People have responded in a number of ways. Some felt that the blog was “out of touch” and “tone-deaf” to the issues of concern for primary care nurse practitioners (PCNPs), in essence abandoning our shared commitment to the preparation, profession and position of nurse practitioners.

Nothing could be further from the truth! To be clear, in my earlier blog posts (e.g., “Reducing the Impact of the Doctor Shortage in a Year,” from July 2014), published articles (e.g., “Nurse Practitioners: Implementing the Affordable Care Act,” in San Francisco Medicine, April 2013) and numerous national presentations, I have consistently made the case for PCNPs being able to practice to the full extent of their education and license. The recent blog post is most definitely not a departure from that position.

The Institute of Medicine’s 2010 report on The Future of Nursing framed the future in the context of health care reform. In essence, the country needs a larger, stronger and more integrated health care workforce to meet the nation’s health care needs. To meet the real and growing challenge of providing quality care, the IOM stressed the development of educational standards for practice; the education of doctorally prepared nurses for leadership, education and research; and the need to address the scope of practice whereby nurses can fully practice to the level of their education.

In California, we have had some disappointment in making progress toward these goals. In 2013, Senate Bill 491, which would have allowed nurse practitioners to operate without physician supervision at certain medical facilities, did not pass. Among others, I was asked to and did provide research in support of independent practice. In addition to summarizing the research base that has found nurse practitioners provide high-quality and safe care, with outcomes and patient satisfaction comparable to primary care physicians, I also presented the case that it is much more cost-effective to train nurse practitioners and that they graduate with much lower debt compared to physicians. I argued for the importance of having expanded practice restrictions eased as a means to expand the health care workforce to meet the increasing needs associated with health care reform. The early version of this bill was discussed with the deans of all the UC schools of nursing, who similarly expressed support. Additionally, a letter in support of the bill came from the University of California, Office of the President.

There can be no doubt of where I stand on the issue of independent practice for nurse practitioners. And we will continue to fight for this becoming a reality in California as it already has in some states. Hopefully, the 2013 bill will be reintroduced and will pass in the next legislative session.

All of that said, a larger workforce – even one enhanced by making full use of NPs’ unique skill set – is not enough. Coordinated, team-based care is health care’s future. Thus, we need to do better in terms of training together, working together and supporting each other. Listening to and understanding the views and concerns of our professional colleagues moves us closer to these important goals.

David Vlahov, RN, PhD, FAAN


In Support of Primary Care Medicine

January 2015
David Vlahov

Recently, an article in Academic Medicine described the results of a survey that found 66 percent of primary care physicians (PCPs) would recommend becoming a primary care nurse practitioner (PCNP) as a career choice, whereas only 56 percent of PCPs would recommend a career in their own profession. Conversely, 88 percent of primary care nurse practitioners would recommend their own career.

As one of many nurses who have argued long and loud that the challenges of health care reform demand that we expand the scope of practice for nurse practitioners, I might be expected to take some pleasure in such findings.

I do not; I find the survey results dispiriting. A shrinking pool of primary care physicians is unequivocal bad news for anyone who cares about creating a truly responsive and high-quality system of care.

Consider one key passage of the article:

It is possible that Primary Care Physicians’ greater willingness to recommend a career as a PCNP over a career in their own profession could reflect their pessimism about the future of primary care medicine. Dissatisfaction with factors not assessed in this survey – lower payments and incomes relative to specialists, long work hours, increasing bureaucracy and compliance oversight, devaluation of primary care among the academic medical community, the additional years of education, and high debt levels following the completion of medical education, particularly in relation to their salary as compared with physicians in other specialties – could weigh heavily enough to offset PCPs’ misgivings about PCNPs and thus explain their greater willingness to recommend that qualified students pursue careers as PCNPs.

If the authors’ speculations about the sources of primary care dissatisfaction are correct – and such thoughts are nothing new for those of us who count primary care physicians as friends and colleagues – then it is time for all of us to find ways to turn this train around. A strong primary care physician workforce is a non-negotiable necessity for quality care.

Therefore, we must build new incentives for primary care medicine into the evolving designs for health care delivery and academic medicine. We must work together with our primary care physician colleagues to create and sustain the conditions necessary to maintain and expand their vital practice. Even as PCNPs have sought a wider scope for their own practice, it has always been in the context of adding value to an essential partnership with primary care physicians and other health professionals to enhance health and well-being for all individuals.

To be clear: becoming a PCNP is a great career choice. Yet PCNPs do not exist to replace primary care physicians. We are not interchangeable. There may be overlap in our roles, but there is also important differentiation where each provides additive value to health care delivery and the health of our patients.

If nursing is dedicated to creating and being part of a comprehensive health system that meets the needs of disease prevention, management and health promotion, then we must advocate for a strong primary care physician workforce that feels truly energized about bringing its expertise and innovation to our shared mission.

Thoughts on World AIDS Day

November 2014
David Vlahov

World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) is an opportunity to renew our commitment to creating a generation without this dreaded disease. This year’s theme – Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-Free Generation – is a perfect rallying cry for a fight that, unfortunately, is not yet over. Just this week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study which found that more than 1 million Americans have HIV, nearly 50,000 more become infected every year, and in 2011, fewer than 3 in 10 had the disease under control.

So a renewed commitment is essential – and some of us find the strength for that commitment in the inspiration of heroes. With HIV/AIDS there is no shortage of such heroes, from patients and families to researchers, clinicians, advocacy groups and policymakers.

Inevitably, though, I think of my nursing colleagues. In the early 1980s, when the disease first emerged as a virulent and mysterious killer and I saw my first patient with HIV/AIDS – when we didn’t know how to ease the suffering, and the stigma associated with this “gay disease” was more cruelly overt than it is today – nurses often took center stage.

No place was this more true than in San Francisco. In 1983, the San Francisco Department of Public Health and UCSF created the first outpatient clinic devoted to caring for people with AIDS and, led by Cliff Morrison – a nurse and clinical faculty member at UCSF School of Nursing – the first inpatient AIDS unit in the nation at San Francisco General Hospital.

Absent any known treatment or cures, Morrison and his colleagues focused on relieving the physical and emotional suffering of early AIDS patients. Symptom management – a major clinical responsibility for nurses in any setting and a major pursuit of nurse scientists – was crucial.

Morrison and his team also understood that easing suffering meant helping patients overcome the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Their early realization led to research by nurse scientists and others that has leant understanding to stigma’s role in all disease.

Community health nurses and researchers were among the first to understand that AIDS affected other communities, such as injection drug users and sex workers. Developing community health interventions was an important factor in stemming the epidemic.

As discoveries emerged, nurse educators at UCSF and other schools adapted our curricula, developing patient education techniques that helped individuals and communities reduce the risks of contracting HIV and helped patients adhere to treatment regimens. Over the years, nurse educators here have helped create a virtual army of HIV/AIDS-trained practitioners for the Bay Area and the world.

That’s important, because as HIV/AIDS has become more chronic illness than death sentence, nurses often are the clinical leads with patients. We work with physician colleagues to develop realistic treatment plans tailored to the context of our patients’ entire lives. We point patients to community resources and help them understand it is possible to live full and rewarding lives while managing the illness.

So, today, as the HIV/AIDS community renews its commitment to this fight, I feel enormous pride in my profession. We are only one among many groups whose heroic efforts inspire us today, but our work demonstrates the very best in nursing and health care – not just the compassion and kindness with which we are often associated, but our complex and essential role in many aspects and on many levels of patient care.

Still, there is much left to do. Let’s draw our strength for the continued fight from our heroes. 

If You Had $100 Million for Global Health

November 2014
David Vlahov

Recently, I participated in a well-attended panel discussion on the challenge of global population growth, sponsored by a consortium of academic global health programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. The discussion ranged from the pressing problems of inadequate and diminishing access to water and food to the megatrend of unremitting urbanization and the need to shift development dollars to where people are and will be.

As the session moved to audience questions, one participant asked, “If you had $100 million and were not allowed to divide it between priorities, how would you spend it?”

A hundred million dollars may seem like a large sum of money, yet it really is not when you consider the range and size of needs in global health; in 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that global spending on health exceeded $6 trillion annually. Thus, considering what the top priority should be if we had only $100 million to spend is an important exercise in triage because, sad to say, resources will always have limits.

Certainly, the possibilities are overwhelming. Some point to the need for research and development of vaccines and enhancing the availability of existing medications and treatments. Others focus on social determinants of health, which include water, sanitation and transportation infrastructure; or on the promise of shared governance, such as expanding the Latin American model of participatory budgeting, which has led to improvements in infant mortality and life expectancy. Still others propose investing more in the WHO’s urban health observatory, which carefully monitors populations and evaluates programs and policies in areas where most people live around the world; this could be extended to more countries where city growth is rapid, especially in the slums. 

Another area with the potential for a large return on investment is primary education that consciously includes women. The case for this is especially strong in low- and middle-income countries, because education builds human capital, and the inclusion of women enables countries to mobilize the entirety of their human resources.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, though, that I would argue another important direction for progress in global health is investing in the education of nurses. Doing so complements existing structures and resources such as medical schools and tertiary care hospitals for specialty care. Expanding the nursing workforce in community and public health supports essential population health initiatives in prevention, surveillance, primary care delivery and referral. More nursing education also is the fastest way to bring skilled health care workers to the front lines of all forms of health promotion, primary care and midwifery. And more nurses creates a larger workforce of community-level clinicians and leadership-trained community health workers, thus raising the collective knowledge of health and increasing the presence of quality health services for a greater proportion of any country’s population. That would be a pretty good return on a $100 million investment.

Nursing at the Front Lines of Ebola – and Beyond

October 2014
David Vlahov

This month we learned about yet another case of Ebola in the US, where a second Dallas nurse became infected after treating a patient who flew here from Liberia.

We can only imagine what these infected nurses are experiencing. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them and to the others infected in the US, Europe and West Africa. We feel the caution, anxiety and fear of the nurses and other workers who are at the front lines. From a distance we sense the rising level of alarm. Yet as a profession, as colleagues in arms, we can take steps to address this threat.

The first is to put the threat into proper perspective and to not mince words: Ebola is a very dangerous virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture classify possible infectious agents into levels of threat. Those agents in the highest level (Category A) can result in high mortality rates, might cause public panic and social disruption and require special action for public health preparedness. Category A includes viral hemorrhagic fevers, one of which is the Ebola virus. Given its high rate of mortality (around 50 percent; mortality rates of past outbreaks have varied from 25 percent to 90 percent), it is handled only in the most secure, Biosafety Level-4 laboratory settings. (A note: While the categorization framework was developed for planning around bioterrorism, there is no suggestion or hint of that here. What we are witnessing is an outbreak turned into an epidemic, with the potential to spread through global travel.)

With no vaccine yet and treatment limited to supportive care, step two involves health care workers making sure we can protect ourselves, so we can not just help contain the epidemic, but also address the accompanying public panic and social disruption. Guidelines for prevention are available at

Next, as nurses, we have a role that begins with professional screening, identification and care of the individual patient, family and co-workers, but we must go beyond that. We have a crucial role in educating the communities where we live and the wider community throughout the country and the world. Preventing public panic and minimizing social disruption depends on individuals and communities having information and a sense of support, rather than stigmatization. This will be especially important as the fever and headaches of flu season kick into gear, and as people interact with friends, neighbors and family members who have come from overseas – even those who arrived here long ago. Even as I write this morning, there was a report of a community college in Texas that refused to admit a student from Nigeria.

The first law of epidemics is that whatever goes up must come down. We can make the number of cases and the anxiety surrounding them come down faster if we stick to our training and work together. By conducting objective assessments, making appropriate referrals, providing care with appropriate precautions, and calming others even in the worst of circumstances – this will be yet another time when nursing will be absolutely central to an effective public health response.

Global Disaster Nursing

September 2014
David Vlahov

If ever there was a time to open a discussion about the need for global disaster training in nursing, that time is now.

As the epidemic of Ebola virus infections continues, organizations and individuals around the world are calling for the assistance of health care workers, including nurses. The USAID (United States Agency for International Development) website has information on who is needed and how to volunteer. The most urgent need is for those with training and experience in disaster response, but programs for advanced practice nurses in disaster preparedness and response are few and far between. We believe that needs to change.

Hiroko Minami (DNSc ’82, UC San Francisco School of Nursing), president of the University of Kochi, has been a leading proponent of disaster nursing, having initiated it as a specialty in her school’s PhD program. The vision for that program emerged after the 1995 Kobe earthquake and became especially resonant after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and radiation exposure.

UCSF, Kochi and other nursing programs in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire – home to many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – have completed memoranda of understanding aimed at promoting programs for education and research in disaster nursing. A few schools in the United States have even developed certificate programs, although a number of those are limited to online education.

Now, however, the response to the Ebola virus epidemic has made clear that other than programs that emerged in direct response to the HIV pandemic, few prepare clinical specialists in infectious disease and population infection control. We believe we can build on existing programs to quickly create full-fledged disaster nursing curricula that include didactics, simulation and experience in epidemiology, and emergency preparedness and response for a wide range of possible events.

Doing so will fill a critical need, as natural and man-made disasters – be they hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, fires, chemical spills, radiation events or terrorist attacks – occur with disturbing frequency. One need only look at this map, which is updated regularly, to understand the urgency.

A key to surviving disaster is to prepare for it. That’s why now is the time to create a cadre of expert nurses who can not only help communities around the world prepare for and respond to population events, but also pursue and promote the much-needed education and research.


Ebola Virus Disease and the Nursing Workforce

August 2014
David Vlahov

The World Health Organization reported that as of August 11, 2014, the number of cases attributed to Ebola virus disease (EVD) in four West African countries stood at 1,848, with 1,013 deaths. More than 145 health care workers who have provided care to Ebola patients have also become infected, with 80 deaths so far.

Concern has spread to the United States, as two American health care workers who contracted the disease were flown here and are under care. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has assured the public that the probability of EVD spreading within the US is remote. Nevertheless, both here and around the world, the virulence of the disease, some misunderstanding of how it is transmitted and a failure to have proper protections in place in some health care settings have caused alarm among those charged with treating EVD’s victims.

Those fears recall memories of when I was an infection control nurse in Baltimore, caring for patients with AIDS early in the HIV epidemic. I remember seeing an AIDS patient placed into full isolation, with nurses and physicians congregated outside the room expressing anxiety about whether they should go in at all. As the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program history project noted, some physicians and nursing staffs even refused to provide treatment to those with AIDS symptoms. As people died, stigma and willful ignorance kept many funeral homes from accepting bodies for burial. In 1987, the New York Times published an article titled “When Doctors Refuse to Treat AIDS.” As the country faced a new and highly fatal disease, fear was palpable.

With today’s Ebola outbreak – just as with HIV and other viral outbreaks, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and H1N1 influenza (swine flu) – some health care workers have volunteered to be at the front lines, but others have been reluctant. Such reluctance is understandably highest in the earliest days, especially if the routes of transmission are not well understood, health care workers don’t know how best to protect themselves – and don’t trust their employers to provide them with all of the appropriate protections. That appears to be what’s behind reports of nurses going on strike in the affected West African nations.

Given the dire need for treating EVD patients and containing future outbreaks of the disease, we must:

  • Strengthen the global nursing workforce with increased clinical and public health training.
  • Establish an adequate inventory of equipment and supplies.
  • Provide a public health infrastructure for rapid and effective monitoring and response to emerging events.
  • Train governments to lead efforts in public health preparedness and response.

This is what we eventually did with HIV/AIDS and did more quickly with SARS and H1N1. Such preparedness builds a reservoir of trust and confidence that otherwise can be tested and undermined during emergencies such as the one we are currently witnessing.

Nurses play a crucial role in establishing that trust – not just by our presence at the bedside, but through use of our public health expertise to develop policies and lead and organize our communities. By addressing understandable concerns for our own safety and that of our colleagues and communities, we can help ensure patients receive the care they so desperately need.


Reducing the Impact of the Doctor Shortage in a Year

July 2014
David Vlahov

With startling regularity, stories continue to appear in publication after publication in which the authors fret about how to respond to the growing demand for health care, particularly primary care, and the accompanying shortage of doctors. Typically, the writers call for more medical schools, more money for medical students to lower debt, and incentives for medical students to go into primary care.

As we have noted many times before – and in many settings – such measures are important, but they will not be enough and they will not get solutions in place as quickly as is necessary. Meanwhile, there is a more immediate, research-based solution right in front of us – if only state legislatures would listen objectively to the evidence.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are RNs with at least a master’s degree who are nationally certified for a particular specialty area, such as family health care, midwifery or adult-geriatric care. Compared with physicians, NPs take less time to train, the programs are less expensive to run and the amount of student debt is less. Equally important, studies that the Institute of Medicine has characterized as valid have shown that NPs can safely and effectively deliver 90 percent of pediatric primary care services and 75 percent of general primary care services. Other studies have shown that each discipline sends patients to specialists when needed. Moreover, NPs are more likely than physicians to practice in underserved areas, both urban and rural, where the shortages are most severe.

Despite such findings, we still find articles in national publications in which the authors or their sources espouse relegating NPs to “performing vaccinations and strep tests.” That is a woeful underutilization of highly skilled practitioners. It reflects limited scope-of-practice rules and a narrow vision for addressing the desperate need for more high-quality primary care, which nearly every expert agrees is critical to improving people’s health – and reducing the exorbitant cost of care in this country.

The Bay Area Council Economic Institute recently issued a white paper that, among other things, noted that allowing nurse practitioners in California to practice to the full extent of their education and training could save the state $1.8 billion on preventative care visits alone over 10 years while increasing the number of those visits by 2 million per year. The lead author of the report notes: “While no single policy change will be a panacea for the critical cost and access issues facing California, this reform [allowing nurse practitioners to provide the health care services they were trained and licensed for] could be an important first step to bring down some of the barriers that are keeping healthcare costs artificially high.”

To be clear: having nurse practitioners practice to the full extent of their education and experience does not remove the need for more schools, more funding for the health professions and incentives to draw more professionals into primary care.

But those are longer-term concerns. To meet the shorter-term health needs of individuals and populations, there is a solution available now. It is time for legislatures to stop being distracted by false arguments and expensive lobbying efforts. They should act immediately to free nurse practitioners to practice to the full extent of their education, so NPs can help address the health care needs of the people our legislators serve. 

An Opportunity to Reduce Premature Births

June 2014
David Vlahov

Premature birth is a major public health problem. According to Born Too Soon – a 2012 report co-produced by the March of Dimes, The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, Save the Children and the World Health Organization – worldwide, approximately 15 million babies are born prematurely each year. More than 1 million of these infants die due to complications of prematurity. Prematurity is the leading cause of death for babies in the first four weeks of life, and second behind pneumonia for all children less than 5 years old. Moreover, many survivors face a lifetime of disability, including learning disabilities, vision problems and hearing loss. Even more disturbing, trend data from 65 countries show rates of preterm birth rising in most countries around the world, rich and poor.

However, as the report notes in its executive summary, premature babies can be saved if one considers that, “Inequalities in survival rates around the world are stark: half of the babies born at 24 weeks (four months early) survive in high-income countries, but in low-income settings half the babies born at 32 weeks (two months early) continue to die due to a lack of feasible, cost-effective care, such as warmth, breastfeeding support, and basic care for infections and breathing difficulties. Over the last decade, some countries have halved deaths due to preterm birth by ensuring frontline workers were skilled in care of premature babies and improving supplies of life-saving commodities and equipment.”

UC San Francisco recently received a grant to address this global problem: a combined commitment of $100 million from Lynne and Marc Benioff and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The funding is to address prematurity risks, education, prevention and treatment in both the wealthy and less wealthy nations. We are proud to share that the School of Nursing played an important role in preparing the proposal and that we are now contributing interprofessional leadership for the planning year that has already begun. Linda Franck, chair and professor of Family Health Care Nursing, is one of the planning-year deputy directors, representing a department that includes nurse-midwives, neonatal intensive care clinical specialists and pediatric and family nurse practitioners. Professor Emerita Sally Rankin has been a key link between the School’s global health nursing program and UCSF Global Health Sciences. I am proud to serve on the project’s Internal Advisory Board.

This is timely, essential work. The research on factors associated with the incidence of prematurity, prevention methods and treatment is incomplete. Over the next decade, this project will frame and address key unanswered questions, taking advantage of a unique opportunity to generate ideas that are both transdisciplinary and transformative. We look forward to joining forces with colleagues from many disciplines to reduce the burden of preterm birth worldwide.