The School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Capella University recently welcomed Elizabeth (Betty) Nelson, PhD, RN, as its new dean.

Nelson has extensive experience in health care, policy, research, and higher education, including previous roles as a chief nursing officer, hospital administrator, policy-based researcher, vice president for quality, and university dean.

We recently connected with Nelson to learn more about what brought her to Capella, her views on the critical issues facing nurses today, and what competencies nurses and health care professionals need to possess to lead the industry into the future.

What attracted you to the role of dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Capella?

Capella is a unique university in that it has a fundamentally innovative culture, which translates into being a beneficial disrupter in higher education. Its focus on adult students has led to innovative and effective teaching and learning strategies that support student success, not only in school but more importantly in students’ careers and lives.

One example of Capella’s innovative approach to education is its competency-based education model.

To be part of an organization that is so focused on effective innovation, and that is so dedicated to offering high-quality education, was an opportunity I could not pass up.

Tell us about your background and how it has prepared you for this role.

I have worked in many roles in health care, in hospitals and in both traditional and non-traditional colleges and universities. I believe I bring a robust and varied set of experiences and perspectives that will enable me to further build the already compelling vision and strategy of Capella’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences. 

I should note that some of my previous roles have been focused on fixing struggling organizations or programs. That’s not at all the case at Capella. The Capella nursing and health care programs are incredibly strong, and I’m here to help build upon those strengths.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing health care professionals today? How are programs like yours working to address those issues?

In my view, there are three primary challenges. The first is the overall health of our citizens or lack thereof. We are not a healthy country. Too many of us suffer from chronic diseases that are rooted in behavioral and/or environmental causes like obesity and drug abuse. These are not new problems, yet we have been ineffective in solving them. Continued diligence is required by health care, business, and civic leaders. The costs to our society, as well as the negative impact on the quality of life, are rising.

The second issue is the overall effectiveness of the health care system itself. Currently, the health care system’s primary focus is on responding to illness and disease. What is missing is an effective focus on assuring and maintaining good personal and public health. This is an incredibly complex topic of course, and very much a moving target, but we have to address it as it can be an obstacle to helping all of us be as healthy as we can be. It’s an issue that requires deep and ongoing focus. 

Finally, we simply don’t have enough health care professionals to do the necessary work of providing health care services, and we need to do more to ensure they have the appropriate level of training and education. Complicating that need is a shortage of faculty to train the nurses and health care professionals of tomorrow. You can see how this combination creates a self-defeating cycle. We need to do everything we can to address it. Capella is a big part of the solution.

Why are you passionate about being a health care professional and a nurse? It can be a hard profession, but so many health care professionals remain incredibly dedicated. Why do you think that is?

I believe health care and nursing are callings. It really is in your DNA. It isn’t easy, but it is incredibly rewarding. You are caring for patients and their families when they are most vulnerable. We have the privilege of helping them return to the best level of health they can. That is a gift. That is why we do what we do. That is why I do what I do.

How do you see the role of the nurse evolving in years to come? What are the skills and competencies nurses must possess to succeed going forward?

There are three main areas where the role of the nurse is changing: patient care, research, and leadership.

Nurses are well positioned to provide care, manage, and lead in the ever-increasing complexity of the health care system. Systems thinking and complexity management are at the core of nursing education and practice. Understanding the context in which care is needed and provided is essential to help ensure compassionate and effective care.

Nurses have to be skillful at working across disciplines. Health care today is so much more complex than it used to be. It used to be just the family doctor and the nurse, and that was it. Now there can be six or seven doctors, multiple nurses, social workers, technicians, etc. involved in a case. That is because of the increasingly complex nature of patient care, and the corresponding growth of knowledge and specialization to treat those patients.

Nurses and all health care professionals also must possess a much more grounded understanding of ethics. People are living longer because of better medicine and science. That brings about more difficult treatment decisions.

Related to that is an ever-increasing need to stay on top of the latest research and literature in your field. Nurses and other health care professionals have to develop the habit to continually identify, analyze, and apply the latest research. Just as important, nurses must increase their roles in research. Nurse researchers have a unique vantage point to identify and discover new and effective patient-care strategies to address the complexity of patient and community needs. We can never stop learning. People’s lives depend on it. It’s a sacred trust that we will stay on top of the latest trends in health care delivery.

Perhaps one of the newest roles for nurses is that of the executive. Nurses are in executive leadership positions in organizations throughout the entire health care ecosystem, such as hospitals, home health agencies, philanthropic foundations, government agencies, health care technology companies, as well as serving on corporate and non-profit boards. Providing leadership at these levels requires a command of finance, risk, resource utilization and strategy, in addition to the fundamentals of compassionate care.

Finally, why should a nurse consider an online degree from Capella to advance their career?

Capella’s programs are high quality and meet stringent national standards, and they are offered in a way that is respectful to the working adult. Going to school shouldn’t feel like an insurmountable obstacle. Capella makes it as convenient and efficient as possible, without sacrificing quality or excellence.

In addition, Capella’s competency-based model recognizes practicing professionals for what they already know.

Lastly, I’d like to reinforce the fact that more nurses are taking on leadership roles at higher levels than ever before, and that is incredibly gratifying. More and more nurses today are CEOs, elected officials, or executive directors of very impactful nonprofits. They need programs to prepare them for those leadership roles, and I believe Capella is not only doing that today but is positioned to continue to do so into the future.

Explore Capella University’s School of Nursing & Health Sciences programs in nursing, public health, and health administration.

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