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Extraordinary nurses are first to graduate from VCU’s new doctoral program in nursing

VCU’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program is the first in the state to focus mainly on quality and safety in health care.

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Angelica Smith, right, performs a medical assessment. Smith is one of 11 students graduating Friday from VCU's new Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, which focuses on quality and safety. (Contributed by VCU School of Nursing)

Angelica Smith grew up in a “humble home” in the small, rural town of Corozal, Puerto Rico, “where everybody knows each other,” she said. Now, the soon-to-be-graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University Doctor of Nursing Practice program applies her clinical and public health skills to assist disadvantaged populations in Petersburg, Virginia, where she lives. Petersburg is one of the most impoverished localities in Virginia with the worst health outcomes in the state, according to recent County Health Rankings & Roadmaps reports by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and U.S. Census data.

“Growing up, I saw the struggle that it takes every day to take care of things financially,” Smith said. “Since I was in that environment as a child, I want to make a difference now that I am in a position to impact people’s quality of life.”

The 40-year-old nursing student earned an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering as well as undergraduate and master’s degrees in nursing from VCU after a 10-year career in the U.S. Marines. On Friday, she and 10 classmates will be the first graduates from the School of Nursing’s DNP program.

Smith works as an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner for the Southside Physicians Network and its satellite location Tindall Wellness Clinic in Dinwiddie County. The free clinic provides urgent care for patients in Petersburg and surrounding areas. She also volunteers at a free clinic operated by Pathways, a Petersburg-based nonprofit. Additionally, she provides free blood pressure screenings and health education at the Petersburg Public Library’s Healthy Living and Learning Center. The center is a community health education partnership between the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the Virginia Department of Health.

Through her work and volunteer experience, Smith focuses on improving Petersburg’s rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

“Improvement of these three main concerns addresses many other secondary health issues that are common in this area, including cardiovascular disease, poor circulation, heart attacks, strokes and death,” she said.

VCU is the first university in the state to offer a DNP degree that is focused mainly on quality and safety in health care. The program serves as an alternative to the school’s existing research-focused doctoral degree. It prepares nurses to translate research into evidence-based practice and to lead teams of health care professionals toward improving patient outcomes.

Jean Giddens, Ph.D., professor and dean of the VCU School of Nursing and Doris B. Yingling Endowed Chair, said the program is an excellent addition to the school’s already robust programming.

Robert Powell.
Robert Powell.

“Our first cohort of DNP graduates marks another important milestone for the VCU School of Nursing,” she said of the school that celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. “Graduates from our program will contribute to the improvement of health care delivery. The program's focus on quality and safety underscores our commitment to improved health outcomes of our patients."

DNP student Robert Powell, who also has an interest in increasing patient access to health care, said the program is ideally suited for working nurses who want to advance their skills.

“The DNP program and its requirements helped enhance my clinical skills and application in chronic disease management,” Powell said.

Peggie Powell.
Peggie Powell.

Powell and his wife, Peggie, will graduate Friday from the mostly online DNP program. Both were nurse practitioners at VCU Health’s Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill, Virginia, until Robert began working at South Hill Family Medicine in February. Peggie specializes in pain management and has worked at the hospital for five years. Robert worked in the orthopedics department of the hospital for four years.

While completing the doctoral program was demanding for the working nurses, it was also rewarding.

“There was little time for anything else,” Robert Powell said. “Both of us had to find a balance between returning to school and continuing to work full time. But the program was personally rewarding and provided a means to our becoming better health care providers, patient advocates and role models.”

Students enrolled in the DNP program are required to implement a final project that applies skills learned in the classroom to clinical settings. While working in orthopedics at Community Memorial Hospital, Robert Powell implemented a group visit model for patients preparing for total joint replacement surgery. The project allowed patients to receive care in a group setting with others facing similar health issues. Patients benefited from the shared experiences, perspectives and insights of others. The group visit model also improved clinical efficiency and patient satisfaction. Powell hopes to incorporate the care model to help serve patients with diabetes in his current role at South Hill Family Medicine.

“I may not have been exposed to this nontraditional group visit approach if I had not been in the DNP program,” he said.