Fall Reflections

October 2016
Zina Mirsky

I’m stepping in as a guest blogger for Dean Sandra Weiss, to do two things this month: recognize a redesign of Science of Caring, and welcome the new school year. As a retired faculty member and administrator, I am quite familiar with and fond of both experiences.

I have been involved in the design of Science of Caring from its origin in print through the current online version, and want to say a few words about what this evolution means to me personally.

We long ago recognized the need to bring the best of UC San Francisco School of Nursing – its faculty, research, students, graduates and staffers – to the public eye. We designed the publication to help do that. It was first mailed quarterly to thousands across the country and the world, and is now available online to many more, with greater frequency. It gives me pleasure to know that this new look continues a tradition of conveying the urgency, relevance, timeliness and productivity of our School. Science of Caring has helped recruit new students and faculty, as people far and wide learn of our interests, research and other activities. Our graduates keep in touch, and we’ve profiled many of them for your reading pleasure. Let us know, please, if you have suggestions or thoughts on specific articles or in general – there is always a place for your voice in each issue.

While the publication is wonderful, it can capture only a fraction of the extraordinary work that goes on at the School, which is why I am so thrilled to welcome our group of over 450 new and continuing nursing students back to campus for the fall quarter. The UCSF community is a remarkable, fascinating and energizing place, and this campus infographic, which provides a breakdown of all students entering in 2016, opens a small window into the richness of this community.

As for our School, the best way to convey its vitality is to describe what I saw recently, when the faculty asked me to provide some feedback on teaching techniques and other aspects of a Master’s Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN) course on sociocultural issues in health and illness. Mind you, it’s been a while since I retired, and longer still since I taught actively in prelicensure education, but I’ve known of the quality of our students via my work on MEPN admission screening committees. What an absolute treat it was to see those students and faculty in action.

The MEPN students bring wide differences in age, gender, and sociocultural and educational backgrounds, but all bring a deep commitment to excellence in their newly chosen profession. They also bring a good grounding in study skills and communication strategies, as well as clear enthusiasm for new learning, which makes their group discussions invigorating. They clearly embrace the worth of cultural humility and social justice, and talk readily about strategies to bring safe and quality outcomes of care to a diverse population of patients. They question each other, and themselves, bringing reflection and thoughtfulness to their discussions.

They are starting their nursing career at a time when nursing has never been more vital, with a clear indication of our professional worth in today’s economic and political landscape. The paths they can walk – and run, more likely – vary greatly from the days when I was a student. They are navigating through many nursing career options, actively considering where they’ve been, where they will go next and the choices for their long-term future. Judging from their approaches to the classroom, they will explore these options passionately and intelligently, and their impact will be felt throughout the School and, later, their communities, I am certain.

Our School has always been a place where students can make the most of the many opportunities in nursing, and I anticipate that these students will bring their own drive to continue this strength. I look forward to learning more about and from them!

— Retired Associate Dean Zina Mirsky

A Note on the Dean's Blog

September 2016
Sandra Weiss

Sandra Weiss, RN, PhD, FAAN, is interim dean of the UCSF School of Nursing while the School conducts a national search for a successor to former Dean David Vlahov. Dean Weiss has been a deeply respected professor at the School for many years and has held a number of administrative positions within the University of California. She is the Robert C. and Delphine Wentland Eschbach Chair in Mental Health, co-director of the UCSF Depression Center and a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.

In the months ahead, Dean Weiss expects to contribute her own blog posts as Science of Caring undergoes a redesign. We look forward to her thoughts.

Generating Evidence for Action

August 2016
David Vlahov

While I will miss many aspects of serving this School as its dean, I am also excited to return to my research and other pursuits full-time. Among those pursuits is serving as co-director, along with UC San Francisco School of Medicine’s Nancy Adler, of Evidence for Action (E4A), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation administered by UC San Francisco, which provides funding of investigator-initiated research to build a culture of health. I believe building that culture is one of the great, under-recognized needs in public health.

Consider that a visitor from Finland once commented about our country, “It’s amazing how little you are able to do with so much.” This is not a surprising critique coming from someone from Finland, where health care expenditures are significantly lower (9.6 percent of their gross domestic product [GDP], or $3,984 per capita) compared with the United States (16.9 percent of our GDP, or $9,451 per capita), while their life expectancies at birth are higher by 2.3 years (81.1 years in Finland compared with 78.8 years in the US).[i],[ii]

In fact, the US spends a much higher percentage of our GDP on health care than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nation (47 percent more than the next-highest spender), while we’re ranked only 27th of 38 OECD nations in life expectancy.[iii],[iv]  On average, our life expectancy is one year below the OECD average. In addition, according to the results of a U.S. News & World Report survey, we rank 14th of 60 countries evaluated for Quality of Life.[v]

So, what strategies are they using in Finland and the rest of the OECD countries that we aren’t?

One thing to consider is that while the US and Finland spend about the same percentage on health care and social spending combined (36.1 percent and 40.6 percent of GDP, respectively), Finland spends 31.0 percent of their GDP on social services, while we spend only 19.2 percent.[vi] This seems to support the premise that social spending could be a key factor in better health; and in fact, an analysis within the US by Bradley et al. (2011) found that a higher ratio of state “social expenditures to health expenditures was significantly associated with better outcomes in infant mortality, life expectancy and increased potential life years lost.”[vii],[viii] 

Moreover, the US is ranked ninth on the OECD Better Life Index, an aggregate scoring system based on 11 factors ranging from housing and income to work-life balance and life satisfaction that are all contributors to overall well-being. These aggregate values allow us to compare national well-being between the US and the other OECD nations. When we compare the US to the eight countries ranked ahead of us (which include Finland), we score significantly higher than average when it comes to housing and income, but below average when it comes to community, environment, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance.  

Yet another consideration is that even though the US is ranked highest of the OECD nations when it comes to income, we’re ranked 33rd for social inequality within that category. The story is similar when we look at social and gender inequities in health, jobs, education, civic engagement and safety.

Given these numbers, one could deduce that improving US life expectancies and overall well-being depends at least in part on spending a higher portion of our GDP on social services and programs that reduce inequities and address social determinants upstream before they become health problems. That money could be put toward improving community building, environmental conditions, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance for all Americans, with a particular focus on disadvantaged populations.

However, for the specifics, it’s not enough to look at strategies that work in Finland or any other country, because, of course, such strategies are not guaranteed to improve health outcomes in the US. The question then becomes: What investments in social services and other interventions that target social determinants will work to improve health outcomes of US populations?

Finding the answers to that question is one of the reasons I joined E4A. We’re funding research about the health outcomes of policies, programs and other types of interventions both within and outside of the health care sector, in order to build the evidence base to determine the best strategies to improve health equity, population health and well-being.  We’re particularly interested in evaluating the impact of interventions designed to address upstream social determinants of health. 

So far, we’ve funded 13 research projects with a wide range of foci – from food bank decentralization to a low-income housing redevelopment project and intervening on the economic determinants of health. You can learn more about our funded projects by visiting our Grantees Page.

What do you think are the most promising approaches to improving population health, well-being and equity? We’d like to hear your ideas. Apply for a grant today!




[i] OECD data: health spending. OECD website. https://data.oecd.org/healthres/health-spending.htm. Accessed August 24, 2016.

[ii] Health. OECD Better Life Index website. http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/health/. Accessed August 24, 2016.

[iii] OECD data: health spending. OECD website.

[iv] Health. OECD Better Life Index website.

[v] Best countries: quality of life rankings. U.S. News & World Report website. http://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/quality-of-life-full-list. Accessed August 24, 2016.

[vi] OECD data: social spending. OECD website. https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/social-spending.htm. Accessed August 24, 2016.

[vii] Bradley EH, Elkins BR, Herrin J, Elbel B. Health and social services expenditures: associations with health outcomes. BMJ Qual Saf. 2011;20(10):826-831. http://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/early/2011/03/28/bmjqs.2010.048363.abstract. Published March 29, 2011. Accessed August 24, 2016.

[viii] Bradley EH, Taylor LA. Culture of health: how social spending affects health outcomes. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website. http://www.rwjf.org/en/culture-of-health/2016/08/how_social_spending.html?rid=s88gyymtNUXPDVwZ-JNU9USGEF1u5oKjEoTEIbK2gC0&et_cid=644614. Published August 17, 2016. Accessed August 24, 2016. 

How to Move the Conversation on the Public Health Crisis of Gun Violence

July 2016
David Vlahov

Over the last weeks, the violence in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas shook the nation. Stark images of the shooting deaths of black men through streaming video escalated the issues of firearm fatalities, systemic racism and excessive police violence. The ambush and shooting deaths of the Dallas and Baton Rouge police officers stunned us. We mourn and express our condolences to the relatives and friends whose loss is personal and to communities whose trauma is collective.

However, as health care professionals, we cannot leave it at that; we cannot sit still while efforts to address these calamities continue to be frustrated. Nurses need to be among those helping the nation make sense of the conversation.

The issues are undeniably complex, involving guns, race, class and culture. Our focus in this piece is on guns, but we promise further conversation about race, class and culture in later installments of Science of Caring.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), firearm-related fatalities are among the top five leading causes of injury-related death. Suicides account for 63 percent of fatal firearm violence, but are more common among whites, and the number has been increasing over the past decade. Homicide rates have been on the decline in the past decade, but are more concentrated among black males, where high rates have remained relatively unchanged over time. Mass shootings garner headlines, but they represent less than one percent of all gun-related deaths. 

Then there is the issue of mental illness and guns, which is widely misunderstood. As Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, put it recently: “Mental illness is a strong risk factor for suicide. It’s not a strong risk factor for homicide,” though he made it clear that almost by definition, inflicting violence on large groups of people is a type of mental illness. All of these findings appear to have implications for possible interventions, but we need more data to intelligently inform the design of policy and practice.

Unfortunately, there have been no government-sponsored studies about how to prevent firearm deaths and injuries since 1997, when the Dickey amendment was added to a US House of Representatives bill. The amendment stated that the CDC may not conduct any studies that “advocate or promote gun control.” In 2012, that prohibition was expanded to the entire Department of Health and Human Services.

The restriction on research means that it’s difficult to objectively evaluate the potential efficacy of any proposed gun control laws. In 2003, when the Task Force on Community Preventive Services issued its first report evaluating the effectiveness of strategies to prevent violence, it concluded that there was insufficient evidence to make any determination.

In an effort to change the dynamic after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, which took place in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, Vice President Biden called for the Institute of Medicine to conduct a review and provide a report on firearm-related research. I served on the panel that released the report in June 2013, Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence. We highlighted significant gaps in knowledge to formulate prevention strategies and proposed a research agenda – designed to produce results in three to five years – which focuses on the characteristics of firearm violence, risk and protective factors, interventions and strategies, the impact of gun safety technology and the potential influence of video games and other media. Yet with Congress stalled on providing funding, the research has lagged, although some private foundations have stepped forward.

Nevertheless, even in the absence of all the necessary research, there are some commonsense approaches clinicians should be able to bring to their patient encounters. Last year, at least 265 children under 18 years old picked up a firearm and shot someone by accident; 83 of those incidents were fatal, and about half of the fatalities were the children themselves. Given the public health costs, we should be able to have conversations about gun safety with our patients, but legislators block that as well. When Florida legislators instituted a “physician gag law” that forbade even an assessment of gun safety, organized medicine took them to court, arguing that such laws interfere with their First Amendment rights. They lost on appeal and the gag order remains in effect. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, similar legislation has been introduced in 14 states, and watered-down versions of Florida’s gag law have been enacted in Minnesota, Missouri and Montana.

Nurses, I’m proud to say, are standing up to these restrictions in many different ways. Recently, American Nurses Association President Pamela F. Cipriano, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, declared after the recent tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, “Now is the time to enact meaningful gun control legislation at the state and federal level to protect society…. We all must join with other members of our community and at every level of civil society in dialogue and action to address the underlying issues that result in hate and motivate unspeakable acts of violence.”

The Emergency Nurses Association has also taken a strong position that as health care consumer advocates, nurses must educate the public about the risks of improperly stored firearms and support the creation and evaluation of community and school-based programs targeting the prevention of firearm injuries. They also support the establishment of a national database of reportable firearm injuries to make evidence-based decisions regarding patient care, safety and prevention. Moreover, they recognize that the most effective way to keep children from unintentional firearm injury is to limit access.

Quite appropriately, the ENA also points to where the literature is unclear. Despite the organization’s belief in education, they acknowledge that data are limited and mixed on the effectiveness of existing strategies for education of children. Which brings us back to the key point: Ill-advised restraints continue to hamper efforts to develop the evidence base we need for a public health approach to reducing firearm fatalities and injuries. I join with many others in calling for a national database and a robust research effort that can support public health clinicians in our efforts to stop the firearm-related deaths and injuries.

And on the subject of what clinicians can do, I know of a nurse who felt that discussions with patients about gun safety were better left to gun safety experts. I disagree. As nurses, we can’t pass off the responsibility. We are witnesses to the carnage and we see the aftermath. We have a moral responsibility to be actively engaged, both with our patients and in this national debate, bringing not just our clinical expertise and perspective but also our commitment to generating the data that underpins rational policy and advocacy. We should contribute and, at times, lead the conversation on how clinicians can help the cause of gun safety, and we should unabashedly advocate for the health and safety of our patients and our communities. 

Academic Nursing Advances Health Care Transformation

May 2016
David Vlahov

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recently released a commissioned report titled Advancing Healthcare Transformation: A New Era for Academic Nursing. By building on the Future of Nursing report from the Institute of Medicine, Manatt Health examined the opportunities for schools of nursing within or aligned with academic health centers (AHCs) to become firmly integrated in advancing health care transformation.

The AHCs are hubs of innovation for developing and testing new models of care. Nurses, of course, are key to the success of transforming health care in this new environment, especially as the Affordable Care Act facilitates experiments that move away from fee-for-service and toward value-based payments tied to metrics for quality, safety and value in the context of population health.

Over the past few years, schools of nursing have already begun contributing to these important changes through all aspects of our tripartite mission of research, education and practice. Some schools have demonstrated fiscally responsible nurse-managed clinics for student health and medically underserved community settings. Mary Naylor, PhD, RN – our UCSF Presidential Chair – has provided ample evidence for fiscally prudent transitional care models for complex care management in acute to community settings. At the San Francisco VA Health Care System, we have ample experience with joint medicine and nursing faculty models, which provide nonhierarchical, team-based care using the lens and strength of each profession. In many of these clinical settings, we are both training students and conducting the research necessary to deliver evidence-based solutions.

The AACN-sponsored Manatt report advances this agenda by offering a number of critical observations and recommendations that derive from a process that was both thorough and inclusive. The authors interviewed a wide range of stakeholders, including deans of nursing and medical schools, chief nursing executives, health system CEOs and university presidents. Manatt drew on its stellar reputation to convene a summit with many of these stakeholders to sort through priorities, barriers and facilitators.

One key ingredient for the successful integration of schools of nursing with AHCs to transform health care is joint appointments for campus and health center leadership. For example, in some institutions the dean of nursing is an associate chief nurse executive (CNE) and the CNE is an associate dean in the school. In other institutions, the dean might be a full member on the health center’s board of directors.

There are a number of other recommendations that speak to the essential central theme: Schools of nursing and AHCs must work together to create an organizational climate that not only brings all players to the table, but gives them the confidence and structure to innovate together. That is the best way to plan and achieve a successful transition to a new era in health care. 

Nurses Play an Important, Perhaps Surprising Role in Prison Reform

April 2016
David Vlahov

When President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates in March 2016, it was the most visible element in a flurry of prison reform activities aimed at relieving overcrowded prisons and finding alternatives for nonviolent offenders.

Among those activities: The federal prison system has been releasing thousands of individuals who received long sentences for low-level, drug-related, nonviolent crimes. Sentencing reform bills are making their way through Congress. The Releasing Aging People in Prison (RAPP) project – an advocacy campaign aimed at helping older, low-level offenders – is gaining momentum.  

This is important and humane work, but achieving the desired goal will not be easy. Studies have shown that the greatest period of risk for inmates is soon after release, with high rates of drug overdose and rearrest. This should surprise no one. Releasing individuals who have spent years behind bars to a new and challenging environment with little or no preparation is bound to present many challenges.

Nurses can play an important role in helping to ease these transitions.

While community reintegration programs already exist to help former inmates, they have had mixed results. Those focused solely or mostly on employment have tended to have little effect on recidivism. In contrast, those that have provided a more holistic, multimodal approach (e.g., employment, education and health care) have tended to do better, not just in reducing rearrests, but also by showing improvements in other dimensions. Our alumna and faculty member Elizabeth Marlow, for example, has been on the leading edge of shaping a humanistic approach to re-entry, with a particular emphasis on education. Her work demonstrates one way that nurses can play a crucial role in supporting effective reintegration.

Especially as the prison population has aged, sending people back into the community who are relatively healthy and who have the skills to maintain their health is another key challenge. Our doctoral student Doug Long not only uses direct care and patient education to better prepare prisoners for their arrival in civilian life, but is also doing important research about aging in prison. He is a fine example of how nurses can deliver both critical observations and academic research to support policy change and transitional care programs.

Reversing the excesses of prison sentencing that came into being during the War on Drugs has become a bipartisan issue, one of the few on which there appears to be widespread agreement. As nurses, we have an obligation to bring our expertise to this critical issue and help build healthy transitions for individuals and the families and communities to which they return.

As Viral Threats Expand, Nurses Must Continue to Step Up

February 2016
David Vlahov

In her January 24, 2016, report to the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO), Director-General Margaret Chan spoke about viral infections that are sowing fear and having deep, often lasting health effects around the globe.

In this report, she warned that even though the Ebola outbreak has been declared over in Liberia – the last country to report cases – the risk of further flare-ups would persist. Indeed, the next day, Sierra Leone confirmed its first new case since September 2015.

Dr. Chan told of new cases of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus appearing in Korea.

And she pointed to the increase of Zika virus cases in Latin America. Just over a week later, the WHO declared the Zika outbreak a global emergency.

Global warming, population growth, urbanization and air travel are among the reasons for the rapid, far-reaching spread of these infections. Yet regardless of the inciting cause, nursing’s essential and often central role in public health and prevention demands that we stay on top of emerging information about all of these global threats.

Zika, of course, is top of mind right now. We have known about the virus for decades, but in mid-2015, it exploded – most notably in Brazil, but also in 26 countries in the Americas. In the US, we’ve seen cases related to travel in affected regions and, as of this writing, two cases related to sexual transmission. We believe the infection lasts up to a few weeks and confers lasting immunity.

Prior to the current outbreak, we also believed the Zika virus typically causes asymptomatic infection, with reports of a rash and fever in about 20 percent of cases. Yet in cases throughout Latin America, though causality has not been established, the Zika virus is now associated with infected mothers giving birth to infants with microcephaly – a smaller-than-normal head that typically leads to abnormal brain function and shorter life span. Some have postulated potential links to Guillain-Barré syndrome. A recent JAMA article found a potential connection to blindness.

But at this point, it’s the increase in cases of microcephaly in Brazil that is most alarming. There have been 4,783 cases between October 2015 and February 2016, which dwarfs the average of 140 annual cases seen in previous years in the same country.

Mosquitoes of the Aedes genus spread Zika; they can breed in a pool of water as small as a bottle cap and usually bite during the day. The Aedes genus is found in tropical and warmer climates and in the US has appeared most frequently in Florida, the Gulf Coast and Hawaii. Yet it also has appeared as far north as Chicago during particularly hot weather.

Although much remains unknown, a number of ideas are emerging for how to prevent contracting the virus and putting infants at risk.

  • Some countries have recommended that women delay becoming pregnant for two years, in the hope that researchers might develop a vaccine in that time frame. Brazil recently reached an agreement with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to develop such a vaccine, hopefully within the next year.
  • Women intending to become pregnant should avoid travel to affected regions.
  • Men returning from affected areas should abstain from sex for a month or wear condoms.
  • For persons in affected areas, Aedes mosquitoes are more prevalent during the day, so many are advising wearing long-sleeve shirts, long pants and hats during the day and using insecticide at all times to avoid bites .
  • Those in affected regions should drain all standing water to minimize mosquito breeding.

By drawing on the best available information, nurses can help patients and clinical colleagues make the most informed decisions about how to prevent these infections. We can and should be scrupulous in screening, educating and referring patients, and also be prepared to educate the public in a wide variety of settings. Schools of nursing should review plans and procedures for infection prevention and response, especially schools that provide international experience or rotations; we have already begun our own review.

New information, however, arrives almost daily, and it is our responsibility to stay on top of it and incorporate it into what we do each day. 

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

November 2015
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

September 2015
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

May 2015
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.