Q&A with Dean Doreen C. Harper

UAB School of Nursing is celebrating its 70th anniversary along with the Year of the Nurse and Midwife in 2020. The School has a rich history of innovation in education, research and practice, going back 115 years to its early roots in the nursing diploma programs on campus at Hillman Hospital, Jefferson Hospital, Jefferson-Hillman Hospital and University Hospital School of Nursing. Today, the School is consistently ranked as one of the top in the nation for education and NIH research funding.

Throughout our 70th year, we are highlighting our remarkable faculty, students and alumni who laid the foundation of nursing excellence and continue to forge the future of nursing. 

Dean-Harper-web (1)Dean and Fay B. Ireland Endowed Chair Doreen C. Harper, PhD, RN, FAAN, joined the UAB School of Nursing in 2005. She has taught and led at all levels of nursing and medical education. As the School celebrates its 70th year, we sat down to discuss her passion for helping others, her goals for the School of Nursing and nursing’s importance as a profession.


Q: Let’s start from the beginning – what led you to a career in nursing?

A: My mom was a nurse, and my dad was a biochemist. I grew up around many, many nurse leaders in the state of Rhode Island. They would come over for canasta games, but they were always doing nursing — even in the canasta games. I got to really experience the best of nursing leadership. My mother also worked at the Rhode Island Hospital in nursing administration and took a wide open lens approach to nursing.

She was a diploma-prepared nurse, and always wanted me to be a baccalaureate prepared nurse. This was pretty avant-garde approach back then, but that was one of the things that led me to Cornell University in New York City.

Q: How did your early experience and education develop your passion for nursing?

A: The beauty of going to school in New York City is that we got to see everything. It was a place much like UAB, where people came from all over the world for care and with atypical diagnoses that you wouldn’t find in a community hospital. That experience helped me put things together quickly and learn about a variety of care practices and patient needs.

I realized quickly that I enjoyed thinking out of the box and that I was very fortunate. In my first rotation, I got to work on the Lower East Side with the Visiting Nurses Association, and that’s where I realized “This is the kind of work I want to do.”

Q: What about your time with the Visiting Nurses Association really resonated you, and how did that influence your goals of expanding access to care?

A: It influenced me in a few ways. First of all, if you look at my mom’s career, it was pretty similar in the work she did. For me, it was so clear that these populations had so many unmet needs, and there was a lot of opportunities to close those gaps and reduce those disparities, and everybody deserves health care, and everybody deserves quality health care.

That passion for expanding access has remained a focus of my career because it’s so important to build a path forward in an area with unmet need — and the opportunity to do that is what makes nursing so special.

Q: You received your BSN in 1971, and then you returned to receive an MSN in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing/ Anthropology, a Post-Master’s Certificate in in Adult Primary Care, and a PhD in Human Development/ Gerontology. How did those advanced degrees shape your career?

A: As I moved forward in my career and my license expanded to be a nurse practitioner, it gave me more license to really fill gaps in care. Because I love working with people, I love the idea that even with the same diagnoses, the patient experience is unique person to person. It gives you the chance to develop creative new solutions and ways to help them cope.

My expanded education also prepared me to really step up to the next role and to understand that by addressing all of patients’ needs, I was able to solve more of their problems expeditiously. By incorporating my NP program into my education, I was able to add more dimensions to the care I provided.

Q: Throughout your career, how have you seen nursing expand and change?

A: We have done a fabulous job of preparing highly educated nurses with advanced competencies in many specialties, and I think that has been one of the most exciting parts of my career. As someone who really worked to make that expansion happen by sharing data and information through state legislatures and federal regulations, I also think we’re at a point where we can look back at how nurses are using the skillsets we’re preparing them with.

We’re at a nexus in health care, where there’s a need for nurses to continue this specialized work, but also a need to transfer specialty knowledge back to nursing in hospital and community settings. That requires looking for new ways to use our knowledge to meet the needs of patients and support nurses who are at the bedside.

Q: What’s the future of nursing?

A: The future of nursing is bright – definitely. But I think a re-centering needs to take place to make sure there is a good place of fit on the health care team and within health care institutions. Nursing leaders need to constantly think of ways to make that happen, and as a part of a health care system, we have the chance to act as an incubator to make that happen. We’re fortunate in that we have so many incredible clinical resources and so much research in our midst, and moving forward, we can integrate that into our nursing care and find ways we can be more efficient in care delivery and retain the level of care nurses are known to provide.

Nurses’ biggest challenge and best opportunity is going to be solving those big care problems and empowering people and families.

Dean Harper also spoke with us on “Legacy of Leadership: A Podcast Celebrating 70 Years of the UAB School of Nursing.” You can find that episode here, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


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