Fostering dialogue about practice knowledge development in a DNP Curriculum; Opportunity for theory innovation?

Guest Contributor: Lydia D. Rotondo, DNP, RN, CNS, FNAP

The practice doctorate in nursing developed in response to an increasingly complex healthcare landscape that requires additional competencies for 21st century advanced nursing practice. Complementing traditional graduate (MS) specialty curricula, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program of study incorporates additional curricular content in the areas originally detailed in the 2006 DNP Essential domains (now integrated into AACN’s 2021 Essentials). DNP students complete a summative scholarly practice inquiry project that is theoretically-guided and evidence-based, demonstrating synthesis and application of the tools of clinical scholarship learned throughout the DNP program.

Particularly relevant to the design of DNP projects is the critical importance of context and the application (or adaptation) of best evidence (when available) to specific practice settings or specific populations. As context experts DNPs utilize systems thinking to design, implement, and evaluate interventions within complex adaptive systems revealing new understandings about health care delivery, the healthcare experience, and the role of DNPs as change agents and clinical scholars.

Fifteen years after the release of the DNP Essentials, appropriate focus is now on evaluating the impact of DNP practice on healthcare systems and health outcomes. As a practice discipline, however, there remains little attention by nursing academe regarding the potential impact of the practice doctorate on the discipline of nursing. In other words, how will the growing cadre of DNP-prepared nurses be leveraged to advance the discipline? In today’s interdependent, knowledge–based, digital world, how will advancing the discipline be defined and measured in the coming decades? What additional scholarly tools and curricular content will DNP students need to begin to answer these questions?

As doctoral-prepared nurses, DNPs share stewardship with other doctoral-prepared nursing colleagues to generate disciplinary knowledge. Yet, discussion about DNPs as knowledge producers and theory innovators remains largely unexplored. Scholarly treatment of knowledge generation in nursing practice is not a new phenomenon and has, in fact, been posited and published by several nursing theorists for decades. However, the introduction of the latest iteration of the practice doctorate in nursing, now in its second decade, with more than 36,000 enrolled in DNP programs and close to 8,000 graduates, has not sparked interest among leaders in DNP education to approach practice epistemology from the DNP lens.

Moreover, with a de-emphasis on philosophy of science and theory and stronger attention to evidence-base practice in DNP curricula, DNP programs as currently designed may lack sufficient educational grounding to engage in practice theory development. This further impedes the opportunity for scholarly discourse on practice knowledge production specifically and doctoral roles in nursing knowledge generation more broadly. While the promotion of evidence-based practice among all health professionals is useful to reduce clinical variation in care, there remains nascent opportunity for DNPs to consider how their scholarly work can produce practice-based evidence- knowledge that both improves care outcomes for individuals and populations and illuminates the contributions of nurses to healthcare.

In 2019, we developed a theory and conceptual foundations for clinical scholarship course at the University of Rochester School of Nursing in which students explore the historical and philosophical roots of the practice doctorate in nursing and nursing as a practice discipline. Our early efforts were inspired by Dr. Pamela Reed, Professor at the University of Arizona College of Nursing, whose considerable contributions in the area of practice epistemology provided a framework for course development. In an early course assignment, students are asked to create a concept map using the four nursing metaparadigm concepts to describe their philosophy of nursing. Students present their maps in class which encourages rich discussion about the nature of nursing knowledge related to their role in health care and health/wellness promotion. What is particularly striking is that for many students, this course is their first exposure to nursing’s theoretical grounding and opportunity to reflect on their professional practice from a disciplinary perspective. Several DNP student exemplars from the spring 2021 semester are included below with permission.

Exemplar 1 – Sarah Dunstan, University of Rochester School of Nursing DNP student

Circumnavigating and persevering through life’s most challenging roadblocks, the nurse dutifully guides the most weary and vulnerable of travelers towards safety and solace, both physically and emotionally. Committing to the vision of “Ever Better” and the pursuit of optimal patient wellness, nurse leaders are tasked with the responsibility of advancing the field and creating the new standards of care for the future.

As depicted above, my philosophy of nursing is best explained in the context of a journey. The person, or patient, is represented as a vehicle. Similar to vehicles, each patient is a unique make and model, some with more miles or more baggage than others. The nurse navigating the vehicle must carefully consider these differences and individual patient needs when mapping out the patients’ journey to health. The map, or environment, is laden with roadblocks or barriers to optimal wellness. The barriers may be geographical, financial, cultural, psychological, or physical. Whether few or many, these roadblocks may delay or completely inhibit the patient from reaching their health care goals. The metaparadigm concept of nursing describes the individual caregiver at the bedside that assists the patient around and through these various states of illness in order to reach the ultimate destination of optimal wellness. The destination “Health” is malleable and ever evolving, as depicted with multiple possible end points marked on the map. Health is defined by and dependent on the individual patient and their own informed healthcare goals, as optimal wellness is not always defined as the absence of disease.

The map is in the hands of the DNP-prepared nursing scholar. As a leader and nursing expert in the field, the DNP is the visionary change agent tasked with closing the practice-theory gap at the bedside in the clinical setting. DNPs are the cartographers for the future of nursing, responsible for defining clinical scholarship in nursing, creating, upholding, and disseminating the proposed standards of the discipline.

Exemplar 2 – Christine Boerman, University of Rochester School of Nursing DNP student

My nursing theory and paradigm is composed of many moving parts that work interchangeably and without each of these elements working together, the discipline of nursing would not be complete. My nursing theory is illustrated via the gears that work together in order to create the full working “maChinne” of nursing discipline.

Exemplar 3 – Christina D’Agostino, University of Rochester School of Nursing DNP Student

The figures included within the map are all intended to mirror constellations within that sky, represent the person, the environment and one’s health. Centered at the bottom of the map, shining its beacon of light on the sky is nursing, represented by two hands which provide the foundation. Nursing is a global role. As people around the globe all look up to the same night sky, all people share the benefits of the nursing domain.

My personal philosophy of nursing is a holistic approach of providing culturally-sensitive care for individuals, regardless of locality or ethnicity while being mindful of the interconnectedness that involves the person, environment, and one’s health as the recipient of that care.

Exemplar 4 – Victoria Mesko, University of Rochester School of Nursing DNP Student

My personal philosophy of nursing is: Caring for individuals with a holistic approach, striving for wellness within the community and the world. Along with all of the skills that nurses develop, what sets nurses apart is their caring nature. Nurses have an all-encompassing view of our patients’ mind, body, and spirit. Nurses see patients in the context of their environment and are able to propose treatments that will consider all of the influences on patient’s lives. Nurses take into account all of the meanings that “health” can have to a person, not just the absence of disease, but a sense of wellness even if they have disease. In my map, there is no one nursing domain that is more important than another, as they all have an influence on patient care. The interlocking circle of different hands represents nurses working to form relationships and connections between patients, the community and the environment across cultural lines.  

Exemplar 5 – Kalin Warshof, University of Rochester School of Nursing DNP Student

My philosophy of the nursing discipline is the utilization of the art and science of nursing care, compassion, and practice interventions to enhance the health and well-bring of the person, within their individual environmental context, including social determinants, culture, and beliefs. The metaparadigm map depicts the person at the center of the diagram, with nursing as a discipline, nursing interventions and compassionate care contributing to the improvement of health and well-being of the person. This is evident by the upward arrow, with health and well-being above the person, portraying the upmost importance to the person and nursing. The background in light blue, labeled the environment, indicates that the person, nursing discipline, health, and well-being interpretation and improvement occurs within the context of the personal environment. My philosophy of the nursing discipline is consistent with the Doctor of Nursing Practice Essentials I objective focusing on the whole person and their interaction with the environment to improve health and well-being (American Association of Colleges of Nursing [AACN], 2006).

Exemplar 6 – Kara Mestnik, University of Rochester School of Nursing DNP Student

Individual nursing philosophy is shaped overtime by individual practice, and life experience. My philosophy has shifted over the past twenty years, I have gained vast clinical experience and growth in intrapersonal interaction and relationships. The term balance is often sought for and emphasized as an indicator of health and wellness, comparable to the concept of homeostasis. My personal philosophy of Nursing is the ability to navigate all facets of human life despite the magnitude of directional force that may attempt to imbalance ones mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Refer to (figure 1) for metaparadigm map. Consider the patient the pivot at the center of the compass, with a multidirectional view of their own life and well-being, while the nurse is the hand that holds the compass. The hand holding the compass helps both align and balance the direction the patient is aiming to travel. The nurse becomes both the navigational guide and the stable hand that allows for balance to be achieved at any given period or direction in time. The hands holding the compass indicate a personal connection with the patient as well as an oversight into the larger picture in which patients may travel. The acquired achievement of balance despite a directional force is guided by the hands that allow for health and wellness optimization.

About Lydia Rotondo

Lydia Rotondo

Lydia Rotondo, DNP, RN, CNS, FNAP is the associate dean for education and student affairs and director of the doctor of nursing practice program at the University of Rochester School of Nursing. She received her DNP from Vanderbilt University, MSN from the University of Pennsylvania, and BSN from Georgetown University. Lydia is a 2018 AACN Leadership in Academic Nursing Fellow and has actively contributed to the national dialogue on DNP scholarship and curriculum development through presentations at AACN’s doctoral education conference and publications.

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