When psychologist Penny George was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, she was devastated—but she knew her doctors would offer her the best treatment possible. And they did: After undergoing surgery to remove the tumor, she received seven months of chemotherapy. She lost no hair and was able to avoid nausea with medication. The regimen helped heal her body, but didn't address the gaps she felt in her mind and spirit. For that, she had to rely on herself.
With the help of integrative therapies including acupuncture, massage, psychotherapy, and meditation, she was able to combat much of the stress and side effects of the disease that threatened to overwhelm her. These complementary treatments, she says, "helped restore my sense of purpose, well-being, and control."
George emerged from that experience with a strong belief that, "The policies, principles, and practices of integrative medicine are the only sustainable future for healthcare." She has become a leading advocate for a person-based (rather than symptom-based) approach to health care—an idea embraced by the University of Minnesota as well, particularly in the U's Center for Spirituality & Healing, and programs within the School of Nursing.
"An integrative approach combines conventional therapies and holistic ideas," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, Center for Spirituality & Healing director. "They can help control people's symptoms and improve their quality of life."
Now George and the U of M are partnering to bring integrative approaches to the frontlines of medical care. A $556,000 gift from the George Family Foundation will help the U develop nurse leaders with expertise in integrative health and healing through a unique co-curricular program and fellowships. According to George, the program is part of a larger vision "to prepare for a new world of healthcare."
An Expanded Role for Nurses
One part of the gift will help fund a co-curricular program aligned with the University's new Integrative Health and Healing specialty within the School of Nursing's Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP/IHH) Program. With the help of nurse leaders at Allina Hospitals and Clinics, the School of Nursing and Center for Spirituality & Healing will make rich, experiential learning opportunities in integrative health available each year. Upcoming programs include a workshop called "Touching Body, Tending Soul," that addresses spiritual dimensions of nursing practice, and a seminar on listening to patient stories more thoughtfully in order to provide better care.
Such programming is critical as our society begins to turn to more holistic methods of care, says Connie Delaney, the University's dean of the School of Nursing. "This is about recognizing patients as whole human beings," she says. "We need to welcome more nontraditional ways for people to care for their health." While DNP/IHH students will be the primary audience for these offerings, other DNP students who have an interest in integrative health will also have the opportunity to attend.
The second part of the gift will help fund opportunities for more than 40 students in the DNP/IHH program who want to pursue experiences that will build on their academic program. They may use funding for travel, internship experiences, or other activities. Students will be mentored by nurse leaders within the community, and participate in discussion sessions where they can share their experiences with other students.
While innovative healthcare programming has often focused on physicians, nurses can play a bigger role in the process than most people realize, says Kreitzer. "Nurse practitioners can effectively manage 80 percent of patients' needs in primary care settings," she says. "Adding this kind of holistic perspective to their work really adds value to their role." Integrative health perspectives—which often require significant interpersonal competence and collaborative approaches—are also typically a good fit for nurses, who have long served as vital patient advocates, care coordinators, and health coaches.
Change Starts in Minnesota
George believes that the University of Minnesota was the perfect fit for this program. Not only is the University home to one of the nation's top centers for spirituality and healing, but it's also home to a top nursing school that is committed to the ideas and practices of integrative health and healing. "The University's programs speak to their vision and forward thinking, and we hope that their work will help us build new models for healthcare and take us into the future," George says.
The programs, which will run through 2015, will not just provide valuable learning opportunities for students, but also prepare a new generation of nursing leaders who will have more tools to help people get—and stay—healthy. It's an impact that should extend well past the doctor's office. "We hope they'll be working in a variety of settings," Kreitzer says. "We want to prepare students to be leaders and to bring this integrative health perspective not just to hospitals and clinics, but to community groups and corporations as well."
Indeed, Kreitzer sees these programs as a remarkable starting point for what she hopes is a fundamental transformation in healthcare in America. "We're starting to see that we can't just pour more money into the same system. These programs are just one way we're starting to rethink healthcare in this country, and I think they're going to produce many, many important leaders in healthcare. It's an immense contribution that's coming at a critical time."