Dean Pamela Jeffries Poised to take School of Nursing to the ‘Next Level’

As the school celebrates five years, Dr. Jeffries unveils plans to expand digital programs, increase research and focus on patient-centered care.

Dean Jeffries
School of Nursing Dean Pamela Jeffries is nationally known for her research and work in developing simulations and online teaching models. (William Atkins/GW Today)
September 21, 2015

By Lauren Ingeno

Pamela Jeffries was in her early 20s and a recent nursing school graduate when a middle-aged heart attack patient suffering with severe arrhythmias was admitted to Hendricks Community Hospital in central Indiana. To ease the man’s excruciating pain, the young nurse pumped morphine into his body, small dose by small dose, careful not to stop his breathing.

Decades later, Dr. Jeffries received a phone call from that patient, who had recognized her name in a local newspaper article.

“You saved my life,” he told her. “Do you remember me?”

She did.

“That’s just one reward of the nursing profession,” Dr. Jeffries said in an interview. “There is a special relationship between nurses and their patients.”

Now in her fourth month as dean of the George Washington University School of Nursing (SON), Dr. Jeffries says that nursing has undergone immense shifts since she started her career in the late 1970s. But one aspect of the job that has not changed is the nurse’s role as a patient advocate.

“Nowadays, nurses are case managers. They’re helping patients navigate through the health care system, which can be pretty complex,” she said. “You can make a huge difference as a nurse. Sometimes it’s just bringing that human response—talking and asking questions and providing support.”

Patient-centered care is the foundation of Dr. Jeffries’ vision for the School of Nursing as she leads it into its fifth year.

Since its establishment in 2010, the school has doubled its enrollment to more than 750 students and is recognized among the top 50 schools of nursing in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Its online Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.) program is ninth among more than 130 programs nationwide. Under founding Dean Jean Johnson’s leadership, the school became an early adopter of online programs, increased educational access for military service members and forged partnerships with Virginia community colleges.

“Jean [Johnson] built the school at this level. She put the ‘GW School of Nursing’ sign in the ground,” said Dr. Jeffries, who joined GW in May. “Now, I feel ready to take the school to the next level.”

For Dr. Jeffries, that “next level” includes expanding the school’s online programs, preparing nursing students to better address societal needs and developing a nursing Ph.D. program.

“I tend to have an ‘anything is possible’ attitude,” she said. “The glass half full versus half empty.”

Preparing Nurses for the 21st-Century Workforce

After graduating from Ball State University in 1976, Dr. Jeffries worked in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, earned her M.S.N. degree and instructed part-time. In 1996, she obtained her Ph.D. after completing her research dissertation in Indonesia, where she studied health behaviors and lived with her family for four years.

In 2009, Johns Hopkins University recruited Dr. Jeffries to serve as the School of Nursing’s associate dean for academic affairs and vice dean of faculty. She led the school in its online education initiative, launching more than 40 courses and two online master’s programs. Dr. Jeffries became the university’s inaugural vice provost of digital initiatives in 2013, in which she promoted and coordinated the university’s online programs.

Much of Dr. Jeffries’ research has focused on developing ways to incorporate technology and online components to enhance classroom learning or to increase educational access for students. In the 1990s, Dr. Jeffries helped to create some of Indiana University’s very first online programs. And at Johns Hopkins, she developed and taught a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called “University Teaching 101.”

“Online education is very important,” Dr. Jeffries said. “It’s an affordable and practical way to provide education, mobility and career advancement.”

As president of the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, Dr. Jeffries advocates for how simulations help bridge classroom learning and real-life clinical experience. In 2014, she consulted on a national, multi-site study funded by the National Council State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), which found that up to 50 percent of real clinical time could be substituted with clinical simulations. In September, a simulation framework she created will be presented as a mid-range simulation theory at the National League for Nursing’s Teaching Summit.         

With Dr. Jeffries’ background in online education and simulation research, the GW School of Nursing seemed like a natural fit. Among the School of Nursing’s 750 plus students, nearly 500 are enrolled in online programs. The school offers five specialties within the M.S.N. program and nine tracks within the Doctor of Nursing Practice program, which combine online courses and clinical practice. The school’s Skills and Simulation Laboratories offer students the chance to have true-to-life patient interactions prior to and as a complement to their clinical education in real medical settings. The lab houses 21 simulated patients, ranging in age from infants to the elderly.

Dr. Jeffries is seeking to increase the presence of GW’s online programs and to continue to ensure the existing nursing curricula address the changing health care landscape.

In particular, she said that she wants to ensure that GW’s graduate nursing programs are teaching students to assess and meet the needs of patients who live in rural communities and other underserved populations in Maryland and Virginia. That includes emerging methods like telemedicine, in which nurse practitioners provide care and advice to patients in distant communities via texting, Skype and mobile apps.

“Not everyone can drive six hours to a health care facility, particularly for things like mental health counseling,” Dr. Jeffries said. “But telemedicine provides a pretty rich way to assess and intervene. We have to make sure we’re giving nurses the skill sets and competencies to contribute in these ways.”

Additionally, with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2014, nurses and nurse practitioners are playing an increasing important role in health care. Not only will nurses need to contribute to gaps in the primary care workforce—in order to care for the estimated 27 million Americans expected to gain health insurance by 2019—but they will also need to learn how to work on teams where many health professionals have equal levels of authority.

“New nursing students have to be savvy in policy and in leadership. We need to teach them to make quick decisions and to speak up without penalty when something isn’t right,” Dr. Jeffries said. “There is less of an authority gradient and more of a team-level approach to health care.”

Increasing Scholarship

Another tenant of Dr. Jeffries’ vision for the School of Nursing is to hire new research faculty members and to eventually develop a Ph.D. nursing program at GW.

The Ph.D. is one of two doctorate degrees offered in nursing. While the D.N.P. degree is a practice doctorate that provides students with skills necessary to translate research-based evidence into practice, the Ph.D. prepares nurse scientists to develop new knowledge for the field.

Research areas for nursing scientists might include studying health behaviors, health promotion, nurse education, health disparities, chronic care management, domestic violence and an almost endless number of other topics.  

“Nursing research is essential, whether it’s figuring out a way to better feed newborns who are premature, promoting healthy behaviors in certain populations or looking at global intervention strategies,” Dr. Jeffries said. “Nurses have a unique perspective on an interprofessional team of researchers.”

Whether it is focusing on nursing scholarship or enhancing online programs, Dr. Jeffries said her primary goal as dean is to make the School of Nursing a “destination place” as it moves forward into the second half of its first decade.

“My mission is to create an environment where students want to learn and where faculty can flourish professionally and personally,” she said, “a place that is known for both high-quality nursing education, practice, research and health policy.”

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