The nurse is in: Nurse practitioners a growing career field in Northwest Indiana - November 16, 2018

Courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana

Written by Giles Bruce

GARY — “Stick out your tongue.”

“Ahhh.”

“Any sore throat? Difficulty swallowing?”

“A little.”

“Any chest pain? Coughing.”

“Little bit. Coughing a little.”

This doctor-patient interaction at the Methodist Physician Group in the Miller neighborhood here the other day seemed like any other, except it wasn’t a doctor with the patient — it was a nurse. A nurse practitioner, to be exact.

“She’s saved my lives so many times,” that patient, Miller resident Brenda Lievers, raved about her nurse practitioner, Tonya Harvey.

As the county faces an increased demand for health care and a shortage of primary care doctors, nurse practitioners are increasing in popularity. This is Nurse Practitioner Week.

Nurse practitioners make up one of the fastest growing professions in America, with their number expected to rise by 31 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their median pay in 2017 was $110,930 per year. The job typically requires a master’s degree. In Indiana, nurse practitioners have to have a collaborative agreement with a doctor, who must review at least 5 percent of the patients’ charts.

A career change

Harvey started at Methodist Hospitals in 1992 as a registered nurse. She eventually wanted to do more to help patients get well and stay out of the hospital to begin with.

She went back to school and, 18 years ago, became a nurse practitioner. She said it’s less physically laborious than nursing. And she has more autonomy with how she cares for patients.

“I think this is more impactful,” she said.

She has a master’s degree but is going back for her doctorate.

“I want to go as high as I can in my field,” she said. “I want to be at the top of my game.”

Sharnita Rice, a doctoral student at Valparaiso University, was getting practice at Harvey’s office the other day. Rice, a nurse for Methodist Hospitals, also hoped to have a greater influence on the health of her hometown (both she and Rice are from Gary).

“I wanted to focus on more preventive medicine than tertiary medicine,” she said. “If we can become the gatekeepers, we can prevent some of the comorbidities patients see, especially in this neighborhood.”

Kathleen Carlson, a nurse practitioner and a director of clinical operations for the Franciscan Physician Network, said that when she started in the Region 25 years ago she had few peers. At the time, she heard of four other nurse practitioners in the area; together, they started a local professional organization called Society of Nurses in Advanced Practice, or SNAP. Today that group has more than 170 members.

“We’re seeing less and less physicians go into primary care, even individuals going into medical school,” she said. “Now with the large number of baby boomers aging, you’re going to see changes in health care. You’re going to find that nurse practitioners and physician assistants are going to be the individuals providing that care, they’re going to be filling that void.”

Plugging in gaps

Elisa Bergquist, of LaPorte Hospital, was a critical care nurse for nine years before realizing she wanted to be more involved in the decision making of patients’ care. She returned to school and became a nurse practitioner.

She works at the new Slicer Health Clinic, a practice at LaPorte High School that treats students in the community.

“When Obamacare was passed, we had lot more people who previously weren’t covered who we were being covered. We had this huge influx of patients seeking medical care,” she said.

“Nurses working in hospitals see this as doing something different and decreasing the physical demands on their body and increasing their salary.”

Community Healthcare System’s Jennifer Klaich can relate. She was a nurse for nearly a quarter-century before taking a career turn four years ago. She is now a cardiovascular surgery nurse practitioner.

“I like nursing in general for the patient contact. I’m always pretty chatty,” she said. “I like the science of it as well. This kind of marries those two things. If you’re a people person and you enjoy science or health care, it’s a good field to go into.”

She said she knows about 10 or 15 nurses who are going to school to become nurse practitioners. She just hopes this trend doesn’t exacerbate the budding nursing shortage.

“Hopefully there’s plenty of new nurses in school now, too,” she said.