Ph.D.s at UAA: Homegrown practitioners for a healthier Alaska

April 9, 2014
Xio Owens

Xio Owens, a Ph.D. candidate in the Joint UAA-UAF Ph.D. Program in Clinical-Community Psychology with Rural Indigenous Emphasis, holds two other psychology degrees from UAA, a bachelor’s and a master’s. She works as a program manager for Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Xio Owens is in the homestretch heading toward a doctorate in clinical-community psychology. She’s working feverishly toward graduation in 2014. It’ll be the third degree from UAA for this Alaska grown academic who also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology in 2005 and 2008. When she crosses the stage to accept those three new letters after her name—Ph.D.—she’ll join the growing class of UAA’s doctorate-holding alumni, currently a statewide network of psychologists serving communities all over Alaska, from Anchorage to Norton Sound.

That network of alumni will soon be expanding to welcome more homegrown health practitioners. Next up in the queue for doctoral program implementation at UAA, said David Yesner, associate dean of UAA’s Graduate School, is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. Following approval from the University of Alaska Board of Regents, the School of Nursing will look forward to enrolling their first DNP students in fall 2015.

According to Yesner, it’s no coincidence that UAA’s first two doctoral programs will address Alaska’s health care workforce needs.

“This is yet another piece of UAA creating offerings that benefit people in Alaska,” he said.

Administering to Alaska’s behavioral health needs

Associate Professor Jim Fitterling, UAA director of the Joint UAA-UAF Ph.D. Program in Clinical-Community Psychology with a Rural Indigenous Emphasis, is visibly proud of all his students have achieved, ticking off names and job titles for program graduates on his fingers. The majority of graduates from the 8-year-old program, he said, continue to live and work in Alaska.

Jim Fitterling

Associate Professor Jim Fitterling administers the joint Ph.D. program at UAA. Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

The combination of clinical and community psychology in the jointly-administered program is a good fit for Alaska where a broad scope of practice can be key, he said.

To illustrate the clinical-community psychology graduate’s comprehensive tool kit, he had an example:

A graduate of the program could, theoretically, help administer to the family of a young suicide victim in a rural setting. With clinical psychology training, they’re equipped to work with the family. Community psychology training enables graduates to also work on the macro level with village elders, say, or in large community meetings to address the environmental factors that might contribute to higher rates of suicide among young people in Western Alaska.

Understanding rural Alaska—‘You have to be in it.’

“What really grabbed me was the program’s rural indigenous emphasis,” said Owens, explaining her decision to stay in Alaska for her doctorate. “I knew that as an Alaskan, if this was the field I was going into, I needed to be more well-versed in how to work with people from a cultural perspective.”

Her practicum with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) a few years ago paved the way for a full-time position. Owens is now the program manager for ANTHC’s Behavioral Health Aide Program and welcomes every opportunity to spend time in the rural communities her program serves.

“You have to be in it,” she said. “You can read books about rural Alaska and have people come and talk about it and it’ll give you an inkling of what it’s like, but to actually live and breathe it is a whole other deal.”

That’s one of the reasons she and Fitterling are so excited about this Ph.D. program that’s been tailor-made for Alaska. Owens and other members of her cohort are working to open doors for future Ph.D. students to gain practical experience throughout the state.

“Alaska is developing some fantastic practitioners,” she said. “We need placements for them to continue their training so we can keep them and not keep having to pull people from other places who aren’t really prepared for an Alaska setting and culture.”

New frontiers for advanced practice nurses

School of Nursing

The School of Nursing is ushering through UAA’s next doctoral program, the doctor of nursing practice, currently slated for implementation in fall 2015. Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Alaska’s nurse practitioners (NPs) enjoy a high degree of autonomy serving families and individuals as primary care providers in everything from family medicine to psychiatry. In developing a new Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program and phasing out the existing master’s in nursing beginning in fall 2015, UAA is on trend with the rest of the U.S. Universities in many states have recognized that the extensive education and practical experience nurse practitioners require should culminate in a doctorate.

UAA’s proposed DNP program will add another layer to advanced practice nurse training—in-depth knowledge of health policy that would empower DNPs to advocate for system improvements.

“NPs provide very high-quality care,” said Barbara Berner, director of UAA’s School of Nursing. “There is a lot of evidence in the research to show that NPs provide a high level of care very efficiently. What the DNP does is build on that basic ability to care for patients and enlarges the scope. They can take care of patients and effect policy changes that will benefit patients.”

Currently, the nursing master’s program is a full-time, two-and-a-half-year commitment. The DNP program, according to Berner, will be a three-year commitment, including summer sessions, where students will have the opportunity for more in-depth study of epidemiology and undertake projects that put nursing theory into practice.

“We want our practitioners to be educated to the highest levels of practice,” said Berner. “We have a strong obligation to our patients and professionally to obtain that level of expertise.”

Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement.

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