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Nurse Leadership and Health Policy Implications: Former acting deputy director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers sage advice

Posted: April 26, 2017

Dr. Mary Wakefield

When Dr. Mary Wakefield, former acting deputy director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, speaks, students and faculty listen. Her stellar career in both nursing education and health care policy have positioned her as a powerful voice of nurse leadership, and on a recent afternoon she took time out of her busy schedule to pay a visit to her alma mater The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing to share her experiences.

She began by discussing how the career journey may not be clear at the outset and will require nurses to be willing to embrace opportunities and challenges, but ensured her listeners that a commitment to hard work for a cause one believes in can lead to many, sometimes surprising, places.

“Her commitment to the nursing profession is a theme that she wove throughout her discussion with us and is evident in her career as a nursing leader,” Whitney Thurman, MSN, RN and doctoral student said. “I was really impressed with her commitment to paving the way for nurses to assume leadership positions at all levels of government and the private sector.”

Students were particularly impressed with her commitment to health policy and her emphasis on how it affects each individual — for better or worse. They came away with a better understanding of nurses’ unique perspective on health policy and how the relationships with patients and nurse science knowledge can inform policymaking.

“Dr. Wakefield offered insight into how nurses can and should be engaged in health policy, and noted that although she was the first nurse to lead the Health Resources and Services Administration, she doesn't want to be the last!” said Carolyn Phillips, MSN, RN and a doctoral student. “She shared many lessons with us, but the greatest may have been that, as a nurse scientist, research is only one step in creating change. The second, very important lesson is to always consider the health policy implications of the research being conducted. She said that when approaching a research question, one must consider ‘the cost, access, quality and implications for health policy.’”

Having the opportunity to converse with a nurse leader of this caliber is another example of the outstanding opportunities the UT Austin School of Nursing offers its students, Carolyn added.

“Dr. Wakefield is one of our most outstanding alumni, and we were honored to have her visit,” Dean Alexa Stuifbergen said. “She has used her UT Austin education to serve the public and make a substantial difference in health care delivery and was gracious enough to share her experiences as a national leader with our students. During her visit, she made quite clear that she always drew on her experiences and education as a nurse to inform health care policy decisions. That is an important message for our students and faculty to hear.”

President Barack Obama and Dr. Mary Wakefield

In 2009, Dr. Wakefield was chosen by President Barack Obama to head the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), a division of the Health and Human Services Department that provides primary health care to 24 million people living in rural and urban communities that don’t have access to basic health services. In 2015 she was appointed acting deputy secretary for Health and Human Services by U.S. Secretary of HHS Sylvia Matthews Burwell.

“Dr. Wakefield has devoted her entire career to probing for solutions to the pressing dilemma of providing more affordable and accessible health care to those in need,” Dean Stuifbergen said. “Whether in the examinations room, classroom or boardroom, she has demonstrated a remarkable ability to inspire tomorrow’s nurses and health care professionals and forge partnerships with a broad spectrum of policymakers as a means to providing a more equitable and accessible health care system for all.”

Dr. Wakefield received a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Texas at Austin in 1978, followed by a doctoral degree in philosophy in 1985. She is a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing and was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in 2004, one of the highest honors in medicine and health.

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