Nurses Are The Trusted Profession - Dr. Jennifer Billingsley, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at United States University


Early positive experiences working with seniors in assisted living and a very troubling health care experience with a family member combined to drive Dr. Jennifer Billingsley into medicine, and nursing in particular.  After working as a nurse practitioner and becoming an administrator and academic, she’s assumed the role of Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at United States University in San Diego. In this episode of Raise the Line, Dr. Billingsley joins host Jannah Amiel to discuss why she has dedicated her career to providing quality education to the next generation of nurses, and the important place nurses occupy as role models.  She also describes with pride how her program responded to COVID, offering virtual clinical options and partnering with organizations such as the American Advanced Practice Network to develop more clinical sites and telemedicine options for students.




JANNAH AMIEL: Today on Raise the Line, I'm happy to be joined by Dr. Jennifer Billingsley. Dr. Billingsley is the Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at the United States University. Before she was the Dean, she was a family nurse practitioner director, and an associate professor. She's been working in the nurse education space since 2011. Thank you so much for being with us today.


JANNAH AMIEL: We're super happy that you've joined us. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, and what led to your interest in healthcare and obviously, most specifically in nursing?

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: Absolutely. Thank you. You know, I was really fortunate to know early on that I wanted to pursue a profession in healthcare. I had two life experiences that really sparked my passion for nursing. The first one was actually my very first job as a high school student. I worked as an activities director at an assisted living facility on the weekends. I was able to develop and initiate all kinds of fun events for our elderly population in that living facility and as a young adult, I really started to enjoy working with the elderly and learning all of their life lessons that they would talk to me about. So it was my first experience.

My second one was a little more traumatic. I had a very close family member experience a hemorrhagic stroke at a pretty young age as an adult. We were that family in the ICU waiting room that was waiting for test results, asking a lot of questions and it really drove me as a young person to want to know more, about medicine, science, pathophysiology. And I was really curious -- what's hemodialysis? What does this mean? How could this event have been prevented? So, it really sparked my excitement for learning more about healthcare.

A few years later after I received my bachelor's in nursing. I was actually a new grad RN working in ICU, and it really gave me a new perspective. It really allowed me to communicate and educate with my patients and their family members. It really just continued my passion of nursing. So a few degrees later, here I am clinically practicing as a family nurse practitioner treating geriatrics in a community setting. And of course my full-time job is as Dean, as you said, of the College of Nursing Health Sciences, and I’m really dedicated to promoting and providing quality education to the next generation of our nurses.

JANNAH AMIEL: That's fantastic. When I graduated nursing school, my very first job was in the pediatric ICU right out of school. So it was in that experience for me too, they always say you realize what you love to do maybe in that first year as you start to get comfortable. And that's when I really did find the education for me, that was a thing that felt like it was lighting me on fire to want to do these amazing things. That's great. I want to hear more about what you do as a Dean right now, and if there are some initiatives that you're working on that you're most proud of that you're pushing forward in the education space for nurses.

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: Sure, absolutely. So United States University is a regionally accredited university. We really believe that education is the key that unlocks the opportunity for all people, regardless of ethnicity or economic status. So within USU, my position has been extremely rewarding. We've really been able to provide quality and affordable education. As far as the college of nursing and health sciences, it's been really unique because our philosophy is guided by Dr. Jean Watson's caring science theory. It's been wonderful to be able to live that out every day with our faculty, with our students. And it helps our students create that authentic relationship and communication, not only with their patients, as well as with each other. We live that on a daily basis. There's been so many initiatives that have been really, really important to us at USU. One of the best initiatives that I started two years ago when I was actually the director of the family nurse practitioner program was establishing an office of field experience.

So this is a department that is completely dedicated to assisting students in their clinical placement. They work with students one-on-one, very similar to a student advisor would, and they pair with them from the very beginning, and they're able to work with them collaboratively to find clinical placement. Some other initiatives that I'm proud of are really the way we responded to this COVID-19 crisis. As soon as we had one student that was displaced from their clinical, we really went into action very quickly. We were able to offer virtual clinical options. We transitioned our on-ground immersions to virtual, and we partnered with some organizations such as American Advanced Practice Network to develop more clinical sites, preceptors, and some telemedicine options.

JANNAH AMIEL: Nice. I'm looking forward to getting into COVID a little bit with you and what that experience has been for you personally and professionally, but can you tell me a little bit more, and I'm new to learning about this, about the United States University?

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: Sure, absolutely. As I said, the education is the key, and we provide a student-centric environment. We have such a unique set of faculty, of students, and it's been really rewarding to have a shared governance model within our university so that our faculty and our students…their feedback is valued, and it's really allowed us to continuously evaluate on how we can better serve our students.

JANNAH AMIEL: That's nice. I hear shared governance a lot, and certainly have taught it a lot in the space of talking about hospitals and facilities. I've not yet heard that phrase or that language you use in nursing education, and that's pretty incredible. I think that the potential for innovation is so much bigger when faculty and students, everybody has buy-in to what's being done there. So we spoke a little bit about COVID, obviously it's something that is at the top of a lot of our minds right now, and forefront in our lives. And you beautifully said how your university system has transitioned, and helped the students to adjust and helped the experience to adjust to what we're dealing with. What do you think that this COVID crisis has revealed about our healthcare system, and what are some of the steps that you think need to be taken in order to strengthen it?

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: Such a pertinent question right now. I think the COVID crisis has really encouraged us to find different methods of healthcare delivery. And this is not a new concept, it has really just highlighted the need for it. I know you've had a couple speakers on your podcast previously that have spoken about telemedicine, but it really is one of those avenues to evaluate and treat patients remotely. So I think we'll continue to look at telemedicine, how it is reimbursed, and how it is utilized. I also think that we need to continue to operate off evidence-based practice. There's research out there. We need to go back to the basics. We know what standard precautions are. We know we need to wash our hands. All of these things are still a need, given this current situation. 

The last thing I wanted to comment on was really how we have been able to collaborate, become cohesive between healthcare providers, between different departments, between different systems. I've seen it mostly in the educational systems, but certainly I hear many, many stories from our students. Most of them right now, our nurse practitioner students who are working frontlines as RNs, and I hear what they're going through. So I think it's really allowed us to collaborate, become cohesive, with the common goal of assisting our patients that are in need.

JANNAH AMIEL: Now I'm curious to kind of piggyback on what you said. Obviously you're a nurse practitioner, your students are nurse practitioners. In your opinion, do you feel like what we're experiencing now, COVID in the workforce, if that's changed the nurse's role, and do you feel like it's also changed maybe the public's perception of nurses? I'm always curious to hear from nurses who are on the front lines, or connected in that way. How has this experience changed that outlook?

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: A great question. I think that nurses are still the trusted profession. So I think it is even more important that we are the leaders during this crisis, and adhering to those standard precautions, because people are looking towards us as an example, and wanting to know as a colleague, what is she doing? I get asked all the time by all of my colleagues, "Is this true? Do we really need to wear a mask? Do we really need to do this? What are you seeing? What do you think about this vaccine? Do you think it's going to work?" So we need to be able to answer those questions as best we can during this time.

JANNAH AMIEL: And lead by example, you make a great point. I often get those questions, and sometimes it's easy to maybe forget for a minute that people are watching nurses, whether we're in our scrubs at the bedside, or we're grocery shopping and people recognize who we are, if we are doing things like exactly to your point, washing hands, if we're wearing masks, if we're following those guidelines. I think it speaks volumes how we model that, especially exactly as you said, considering we're consistently rated the highest trusted profession. I think that's a fantastic point.


JANNAH AMIEL: So as you know, we're a teaching company, we love to fill knowledge gaps. That's what we do here. And I'm curious if there's any topic that you'd like to educate us on that you think everybody ought to know.

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: I think it's very important to generate new knowledge, but I also believe there's significant value in translating our current research into clinical practice. So really, as a doctor of nursing practice, DNP, that's the goal. We want to translate kind of what I've discussed today, all of this evidence-based research into our clinical practice. So that's really what my doctoral work was educating providers about prescribing habits in relation to inappropriate medications in geriatric patients. And so what I took with some education implementation on really guidelines and protocols that were already out there to really increase the safety for our patients.

JANNAH AMIEL: How would you take that and, I'm wondering, in education practice? How do you encourage that amongst students that are learning right now? How do you encourage that with faculty members that are teaching these future nurses or nurse practitioners to utilize that research that is out there, and help to bridge it to what it is that the nurses experienced caring for clients is going to be?

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: You know, I think we can really encourage our students to utilize that evidence-based practice, but also they're the ones as we've talked about, they're the ones on the front lines. They have so many great ideas, and I would just really encourage them to be creative, and really be thinking about some of these innovative solutions to the everyday challenges that they have. Look at that research base of knowledge that's already out there, if there's something that they can utilize to solve that everyday problem that they're seeing in clinical practice.

JANNAH AMIEL: Yeah. I agree. Empower the nurses, empower the students early on, I'm very big about that, to take on that leadership. And I mean, it's undeniable for me to kind of think about nurses not being uniquely positioned, and what they do to innovate in these ways. You spoke a lot about the frontline, I agree with that 100 percent. And I think that when you are the boots on the ground at that point, you see a lot of things, you have a ton of ideas, and it's really important to uplift these voices and empower nurses, to be able to share that and to speak that, and to research. It's fantastic. We have so many students and early career professionals in our audience. What would be your advice to them about one, meeting the challenges of the moment -- especially now, with this COVID big moment that we're having -- and two, those that are just approaching their career in healthcare, whether it's nursing or in any other role? What's the advice you would give them?

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: Sure. It's always follow your passion, and perseverance through this time is certainly key. Our students on the front lines are going through so many things right now, obviously with their family, and working as an RN, many are working as an RN, and it's really just perseverance, and take this journey, learn from this journey. They are learning so much that they haven't even realized yet by living through this time, and working through this time. So I would just say, continue to persevere, follow your passion. This is one of the most rewarding professions that you can possibly be a part of.

JANNAH AMIEL: That's awesome. Now, for nurses in particular, prospective nurses, who are thinking about entering the workforce at this point, and might feel a little bit maybe disheartened, or concerned, or just scared in what they're seeing and what they're hearing play out in the world, nd they're not sure if nursing is right for me right now, and maybe I should wait. What would you say to that? That nurse who's so close to getting into the program, but is really thinking that I don't know if this is the right time for me right now to do it?

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: I think I would tell those nurses to continue to follow their passion if they're wanting to care for others. And there is always a mentor and coach that's going to help you through all of this. And although there may be scary moments, there's going to be somebody there that is able to teach you, to walk alongside you, and encourage you through this difficult time.

JANNAH AMIEL: That's excellent. I agree with that. And teamwork makes the dream work.


JANNAH AMIEL: It's not just fun to say. It really is something that's true in nursing that I've even learned myself. It's fantastic advice. Thank you so much, Dr. Billingsley for being with us today.

JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY: Thank you. My pleasure.

JANNAH AMIEL: It was great speaking with you. I'm Jannah Amiel. Thanks for checking out today's show. Remember to do your part to flatten the curve, and raise the line. We're all in this together.