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Nurse scientists - curious minds find new ways to elevate care

Nursing research starts with questions. And, at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, it is leading to answers that improve quality of care — and quality of life — for patients and families. PhD-prepared nurse scientists are on the front lines of this important work, designing studies and making discoveries that advance nursing practice and impact patients every day.

A groundbreaking study by nurse scientist Kathy Mussatto, PhD, RN, was sparked by a question she often heard from parents while working as a cardiac nurse: “What will life be like long term for a child who is born with heart disease?” Since there was no data on the topic, Mussatto didn’t have an answer. But she was determined to find one.

After shifting her focus to research, Mussatto designed and led the first longitudinal study to look at delays from congenital heart disease during the first three years of life – studying skills like talking, crawling, playing and eating. She found that more than three-quarters of these children experienced delays.

Children’s Herma Heart Center responded by establishing the nation’s first cardiac neurodevelopmental follow-up program, which evaluates kids with congenital heart disease at regular intervals, provides early therapies and studies their long-term impact. Data shows that these interventions are helping kids reach milestones at a much faster rate.

Rosemary White-Traut, PhD, RN, a nurse scientist and director of nursing research at Children’s, designed and led another important study on mother-baby interaction in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Based on the findings, she created an intervention shown to improve weight gain, length growth and developmental progress in pre-term infants at 12 months of age. White-Traut’s research grew out of observations she made as a NICU nurse more than 30 years ago.

“Nurses have a profound opportunity to influence the care of children,” says Mussatto. “We’re in a unique position to see and understand patient needs, and we can use this information to enhance care and improve outcomes.”

Working within interdisciplinary teams, nurse scientists are currently investigating issues like pain relief and sedation, child and family coping skills, developmental impact of chronic illnesses for children, and quality of life for children at the end of life.

Curiosity drives them to learn more and do more for patients.

“Being a researcher means asking why things are done a certain way and challenging the status quo,” says Mussatto. “And if you’re doing good research, that work is never done. One question always leads to the next.”

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