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The Board of Governors has authorized UNC’s School of Nursing to offer a graduate-level nursing degree, the doctor of nursing practice (DNP). Nurses with the advanced degree will be educated to fill critical roles in an increasingly complex health care environment in which people need better access to primary care, chronic illness management and preventative health services.

Until now, there were no state-supported colleges or universities offering the DNP degree in North Carolina, which has 91 counties out of 100 that are designated as medically underserved areas. The decision of the Board of Governors on Feb. 8 allows UNC and five other state-supported schools to join Duke University and Gardner Webb University in offering the most-advanced level of clinical education to North Carolina nurses.

“The health of our nation relies on the availability of a highly educated nursing workforce,” says Debra J. Barksdale, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and the newly appointed director of the DNP program. “With this historic decision, UNC-Chapel Hill will educate nurses at the doctoral level to practice collaboratively with other care providers and offer care that is accessible, affordable and of the highest caliber.”

Recognizing that nurses with advanced degrees could address the state’s critical need for skilled primary care providers, Kristen Swanson, dean of the School of Nursing, worked closely with her peers from five state-supported schools (Winston-Salem State University, East Carolina University, UNC Greensboro, UNC Charlotte and Western Carolina University) to petition the Board of Governors for permission to offer DNP education at each school. Their effort to advance nurses’ education will also assist the state in preparing to enact provisions of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

DNP students will be able to choose preparation for direct care as nurse practitioners or for leadership roles as nurse executives. Along with three years of coursework, students will complete a “capstone” project in which they will use the knowledge they gained to study new approaches to improve care delivery or patient care outcomes.

“In addition to coursework and clinical training in advanced nursing practice, students in DNP programs also study population health, patient safety, clinical leadership and health policy,” Swanson says. “This advanced education enables nurses to serve as leaders at the bedside, in the board room or in the legislature.”

Following the recommendation made by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the DNP degree will replace the master of science in nursing degree as the appropriate level of education for nurses to serve in advanced-practice and administrative roles. UNC will be phasing out master’s options for nurses seeking advanced-practice and administrative roles as admissions to the DNP program increases. Currently enrolled master’s students in these areas will be given the option to competitively apply to the DNP program.

The success of the School of Nursing’s current master’s program indicates that job prospects for DNP graduates will be excellent. Between 2006 and 2010, 83 to 98 percent of graduates in the master’s program secured employment within six to 12 months of program completion. Additionally, 72 to 95 percent of the graduates were employed in medically underserved areas of North Carolina.

The School of Nursing is planning to admit the first class of DNP students in fall 2013. Additional details concerning the application process and admission to the program will soon be available on the School of Nursing website.

Published February 11, 2013.