VA nurses graduate online

VA nurses graduate online

Dr. Virginia Saba

Distance-learning course teaches trainees without disturbing operations

By Drew Robb
Special to GCN

In May, the first group of students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences graduated from a nursing course conducted as part of the Defense Department Distance Learning Program.

Unlike most graduations, no students were present. Instead, the 26 DOD nurses attended via a videoconference, the same way they had taken their classes.

Begun in the fall of 1997, the USUHS distance-learning program was designed specifically for Veterans Affairs Department nurses who had attained their advanced practitioner qualifications and had master's degrees. The USUHS training qualifies them as adult nurse practitioners.

'ANPs are urgently needed by the VA,' said Dr. Leon Moore, director of USUHS' Center for Informatics in Medicine. 'A major problem was how to train them without disrupting current service capabilities' at VA medical centers.

Under the 20-month program, 26 VA trainees participated in the real-time videoconferencing program, assisted by teachers at the VA site. Nurses had to spend four hours per week attending lectures. They had to do student-directed programs and clinical simulations. Meanwhile, the nurses continued their assigned nursing duties at the VA facilities.

Coast to coast

For the program, the USUHS Graduate School of Nursing uses the Concorde 4500 from PictureTel Corp. of Andover, Mass. It delivers real-time videoconferencing via Integrated Services Digital Network links. In the case of the recent graduating group, the system fed video and voice data to trainees' PCs at eight sites, ranging from the Bronx to Los Angeles.

The system transmits video with a 512- by 480-pixel resolution at speeds from 56 Kbps to 768 Kbps. The company's Virtuoso audio package handles voice data.

Each student PC uses a QuickCam digital camera from Logitech Inc. of Fremont, Calif., and runs CUSeeMe desktop PC videoconferencing software from White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua, N.H.

Through their PCs, the students also had access to other online tools at the university's Learning Resource Center. The center provides USUHS faculty and students with electronic versions of more than 600 health and medical journals.

'Real-time video's interactive nature is useful in reinforcing didactic learning via clinical simulations that give a human context,' Moore said. 'Far from merely watching, students are able to participate in such activities as diagnosing specific patient symptoms.'

DOD and VA officials said that there are incentives for nurses to participate in further training: Nurses with the appropriate training receive board certification pay and are more likely to be promoted.

Besides the DOD-VA certificate program, the USUHS Graduate School of Nursing is running a pilot distance-learning project for military services personnel stationed abroad or aboard military ships.

Currently, the international pilot has six students: one Army, one Navy and four Air Force nurses. USUHS expects to graduate them from the pilot program next year.

Because the trainees are on active duty and stationed throughout the world, it was difficult for them to obtain further training, said Maura McAuliffe, associate professor and project director of the Graduate School of Nursing's distance-learning program.

'These students have already been subjected to a number of changes of station which would normally have eliminated studies,' she said. 'We've had nurses deployed to Panama and back, Europe and back, and one to Haiti. Yet due to distance learning, they all continue to make excellent progress.'

Moore pointed out that financial considerations played a key role in the school's decision to launch the program.

Super savings

'One of its biggest advantages is savings to the government,' he said. 'Apart from reduced tuition fees, the use of Internet-based videoconferencing and other media in this program obviates the need for' transferring nurses to a new station where they could receive training.

USUHS estimates the savings from distance learning at as high as $700,000 in less than two years.

To check out the program's Web site, go to cim.usuhs.mil/nacp.

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