FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - The University of Arkansas will offer a Doctor of Nursing Practice beginning this fall. The new degree is part of continuing efforts by the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing to better prepare nurses by raising their education level, with the ultimate goal of improving health care.

The Arkansas Department of Higher Education on Feb. 1 approved the nursing school's proposal for the doctorate. The changing demands of the nation's complex health-care environment require scientific knowledge and practice expertise at the highest levels to ensure the best patient outcomes, according to the proposal.

"The Doctor of Nursing Practice will include a specialization for the acute care nurse practitioner," said Pegge Bell, director of the nursing school. "We must address the fact that the hospitals in Arkansas are among the most deeply challenged in the country for the treatment of certain diseases, conditions and procedures such as bypass surgery, heart disease, pneumonia and sepsis."

Arkansas is a rural state with many challenges, she said.

"Among the most critical of these challenges is the health of our residents. Arkansas ranks 48th in America's Health Rankings (published in 2012 by United Health Foundation). Our four major causes of death are cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke - most of them preventable with appropriate primary care services."

The new doctorate, which emphasizes nursing practice and leadership rather than research, will use a hybrid delivery, requiring between one and three visits to the Fayetteville campus. The courses will be delivered online, and students will complete clinical hours under the supervision of a preceptor approved by the nursing school who ensures that the student completes the work satisfactorily at the site. Students may choose one of two specialties: adult/geriatric clinical nurse specialist and adult/geriatric acute care nurse practitioner. A clinical nurse specialist track in the existing master's program will be phased out with the introduction of that track in the doctoral program.

The program will offer two entry levels, one for students with a bachelor's degree and one for students with a master's degree. The students admitted into the post-baccalaureate level will be required to take more hours than those who already hold a master's degree.

"We are taking the brightest and best students into ournursing programs and, with dedicated faculty and community partners, are graduating the future nursing work force for Arkansas," Bell said.

The nursing school also offers a Master of Science in Nursing, which graduated its first class in 2007, and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, which admits about 100 students each semester. The school began offering an R.N. to B.S.N. degree delivered online last fall in an effort to increase the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses in the state. Research indicates that having more highly educated nurses results in improved patient care, Bell said, and only about one-third of Arkansas' 32,000 registered nurses have a bachelor's degree.

Less than 1 percent of nurses in the United States have doctoral degrees, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

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