Montana State University

Renowned MSU nursing economist to deliver Jan. 19 provost’s lecture

December 29, 2015 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Peter Buerhaus, a renowned nursing economist who joined the MSU faculty in 2015, will discuss his career and research Jan. 19 when he delivers the third lecture in MSU’s annual Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. The event is free and open to the public. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Throughout his career, Montana State University Nursing Professor Peter Buerhaus has seen firsthand how research can transform national conversation on an issue as important – and complicated – as health care delivery.

He witnessed it after publishing a paper in a respected medical journal 15 years ago that first alerted the country to a potentially dire situation – the retirement of the baby boom generation of nurses at the very same time that the nation’s 75 million plus baby boomers would begin consuming vastly more health care services themselves. He observed how published research influenced the private sector, followed by the U.S. Congress and other bodies, and reshaped the understanding of the nursing profession. He saw how research persuaded a commission that accredits hospitals to create avenues for nurses to provide more input. And he saw how his interdisciplinary approach to studies of the health care workforce was valued when, in 2010, he was appointed chair of the National Health Care Workforce Commission that was established under The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to advise both the U.S. Congress and the U.S. President on national health care workforce policy.

Now, the renowned nursing economist will discuss his career and groundbreaking research at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, when he delivers the third lecture in this year’s Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series at MSU. The lecture, “An Unconventional Journey: Studies of the health care workforce and their impact on private and public policy-making,” will be given at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. It is free and open to the public, and a reception will follow.

During the event, Buerhaus plans to discuss his notable published research, his collaborative work with the chairman of a large hospital board, a Johnson & Johnson educational campaign which Buerhaus’ research helped develop, his election into the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, Buerhaus’ appointment to the National Health Care Workforce Commission and his plans for his career at Montana State.

Throughout the lecture, Buerhaus intends to illustrate how research can invigorate a profession and influence a large industry, with a particular focus on motivating students to consider careers in nursing.

“That’s what we all strive for in research,” Buerhaus said.  “To produce results that have meaning, that provoke change. I have been very fortunate to have been involved in research that has had extraordinary influence and led to change, both within the nursing workforce and on improving the quality of health care.”

Buerhaus’ family introduced him to health care careers: his father was a hospital administrator – the family moved frequently throughout Buerhaus’ growing up years for his father’s job – and his older sister enrolled in a nursing program after high school and then encouraged Buerhaus to do the same. 

His father, especially, made a lasting impression about the potential to do good in health care.

“My father was a very ethical man. At the time in health care, in the 60s and early 70s, there was so much money, but no accountability…. Consequently, there was a lot of fraud and abuse,” Buerhaus said. “My father stood up to that. I saw him doing the right thing, often to his personal peril. Early in my life I had developed an innate understanding that health care could be better. Later, I came to understand the power of economic incentives that so often determine whether the system changes and improves or stays the same, protecting the status quo.”

Thinking that he wanted to work as a nurse anesthetist at the Mayo Clinic, Buerhaus enrolled in a bachelor’s program in nursing at Mankato State University. But after graduating and working as a nurse, Buerhaus instead decided to pursue administrative work. During his second semester in a master’s program in nursing health services administration at the University of Michigan, he enrolled in a course in microeconomics. It was a pivotal moment.

“I began taking a course in health economics, and a light bulb went on,” Buerhaus said. “I realized that eventually the fee for service payment system would collapse and that the system would seek greater value for each dollar spent. If the nursing profession played it right – focus on providing evidence of its impact on the quality and safety of health care – nurses could eventually play a much bigger and better role in helping guide the development of a better health care delivery system. Not just to advance (the nursing profession), but to provide better and more meaningful health care for society.”  

Buerhaus was convinced that pursuing a doctorate in nursing and economics was the next step, but it wasn’t without struggle. He began to doubt his choice after failing two qualifying exams.

“When the (exam) content wasn’t what I had expected and prepared for, I didn’t pass, I felt betrayed,” he said. “I felt like maybe there was too much against me. Maybe nursing and economics was like oil and water: they just wouldn’t mix. Maybe the nursing profession was too narrow, too bruised. But I persevered. I just moved on.”

He was also buoyed by a job he loved: assistant to the chief executive officer of the University of Michigan Medical Center’s seven teaching hospitals. He had always liked policy and politics, and the position gave him the opportunity to participate firsthand in the politics of a large health care institution.

“It was informative. I spent considerable time in Washington working on issues such as hospitals’ payment for capital and graduate medical education payments. These challenges motivated me and kept me determined to get my Ph.D.,” Buerhaus said.

Buerhaus began to see some of the fruits of his hard work. He went on to complete a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation postdoctoral faculty fellowship in health care finance at Johns Hopkins University. He then landed a position as an assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, where he developed the Harvard Nursing Research Institute and its postdoctoral program in nursing health services research.

After eight years at Harvard, Buerhaus went to Vanderbilt University, where he was named the Valere Potter Distinguished Professor of Nursing in Vanderbilt’s School of Nursing. He worked with leaders in the medical school to create an environment of interdisciplinary research. Later he was named director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies, a cooperative affiliation between the nursing and medical schools. He worked to develop a new Department of Health Policy, which is housed at the Institute for Medicine and Public Health at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Buerhaus first came to MSU in 2014 to attend a conference on rural health care in nursing – a topic with which he had become increasingly interested. He and his wife liked the area and found themselves considering Bozeman as a possible place to eventually retire. Then, during the conference, Buerhaus met a faculty member from the MSU College of Nursing, as well as MSU College of Nursing Dean Helen Melland. Several months later, Buerhaus again visited MSU, this time to consider a career move.

“I met with the dean, the vice president for research and economic development, the president and the provost. These meetings allowed me to obtain a reading of their spirit, their sense of purpose, their leadership. It made me feel comfortable that this was an organization that was changing, moving, heading in the right direction, unafraid,” Buerhaus said.  “The college (was) very close to its mission of educating good nurses who are going to improve the health of Montanans…I found authentic faculty and authentic students with a clear mission.”

Buerhaus joined MSU and the College of Nursing in 2015.

Melland said the university is fortunate to have Buerhaus as a member of its faculty.

“Dr. Buerhaus is a nationally acclaimed nurse researcher and health care economist,” Melland said. “His expertise was recognized when he was elected to the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and appointed chair of the National Health Care Workforce Commission, a commission that, when funded, will advise Congress on barriers limiting health care workforce production and encouraging innovations that can address the current and future personnel requirements of the U.S. health care system. Dr. Buerhaus will contribute significantly to MSU and to the state of Montana and beyond as he studies the role and impact of nurses in the reformed health care environment, especially in rural America.”

Ultimately, Buerhaus’ work is motivated by a desire to help the nursing profession better realize its potential to advance humanity.

“Human beings have enormous potential to do good in whatever way one defines good, but so often that potential is not realized,” Buerhaus said. “When it comes to health, nurses’ potential has often been under-recognized and underutilized, but if given the opportunity, they could have an enormously positive impact on helping improve the health of people and therefore enhancing overall human potential.

“Nurses consider the whole person and that whole person’s relationship to their families and their loved ones, to their environment and to their communities, the many roles they play, their capacity to affect others,” Buerhaus continued. “Nurses are present at birth, throughout life, and during one’s passing. The opportunity to contribute to one’s health and their potential as a human being throughout their lifetime appeals to me. Nurses can create enormously positive ripple effects.”

Contact: Peter Buerhaus, (406) 994-2681 or peter.buerhaus@montana.edu

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