As COVID-19 protocols began taking effect in the Asheville area, registered nurses in a primary care residency and fellows program at Western Carolina University made a quick shift to assist an at-risk population while still continuing their training.
Kae Livsey, director of community relations and scholarship for WCU's School of Nursing, serves as director for the RNs in Primary Care program.
"As restrictions regarding face-to-face practices were put in place, our team began to brainstorm for ways that we could continue to support 'front line' health care," said Livsey. "It didn't take long for some ideas for unique and vital alternative experiences to emerge."
Working with community partners who serve low-income seniors, the nurses in the program are now conducting wellness checks and health education by phone.
“Most of the people I have contacted thus far have been very appreciative," said Tina Cook, an RNPC student from Canton. "It's been a great community service, I believe, and they are very appreciative that somebody is reaching out just to talk to them. Residents of senior living centers are not able to go out and meet with their friends or talk in the hallways like they once did.”
WCU's School of Nursing has a longstanding partnership with the Council on Aging and several low-income senior housing providers, which normally utilize WCU undergraduate nursing students to support prevention and wellness outreach.
"Many of our undergraduate nursing students conduct home visits and preventative education as part of their community and mental health course," Livsey said. "The grant team is working in collaboration with service coordinators at these senior housing communities in the Asheville area to identify resident needs, provide social support and help connect the residents to services to support their ability to be safe and well during this period in which these populations are being asked to stay home."
Because social isolation is a major concern for these populations, the RNPC students provide an essential connection to the seniors living in these communities, Livsey said. The social distancing prescribed for the coronavirus is more than an obstacle for the program's objectives; it adds to the clients' concerns.
"I can hear the difference in the patients' voices after I share with them the CDC guidelines and our clinic recommendations," said Cecilia Brennan, an RNPC student from Hendersonville. "Primary care is among the first places to see positive COVID-19 cases. We can be that vital bridge to prevent patients from getting to the point where they need to visit the hospital."
The residency and fellows program is funded through a $2.6 million, multi-year grant from the Health Resources Services Administration. The program is designed to prepare baccalaureate-trained RNs to practice at a fully licensed scope of practice in primary care settings
"This is a great opportunity for WCU to show its commitment to the community during a time of need, to support community members needing direction from health care providers, like RNs, who possess clinical reasoning and care management, skills and can provide patient education and identify resources," Livsey said. "What the public fails to realizes is that most primary care practices in this region are not staffed with RNs, and in many cases are struggling to address this new need for skills that RNs possess.”
The six-month RNPC program includes robust didactic modules and practicum placement with regional health care agencies in primary care settings with a dedicated preceptor as well as innovative experiences such as virtual reality and inter-professional simulations, Livsey said.
WCU’s School of Nursing is nationally ranked and accredited, with undergraduate and graduate programs at the main campus in Cullowhee, Biltmore Park instructional site in Asheville and online. For more information, visit nursing.wcu.edu.