Family Nurse Practitioner Mary Knudtson’s days at the UCI Gottschalk Medical Plaza are anything but routine. She might treat an athlete with a broken wrist, a 60-year-old woman with hypertension and a newborn with a rash. She’ll refer a man with an irregular heart rhythm to a cardiologist, then advise twin teenage boys with identical flu symptoms on the benefits of frequent hand washing.

“Being a nurse practitioner is a wonderful way to combine critical thinking, scientific knowledge and interpersonal communication to help people improve their health,” says Knudtson.

The core priority of her profession, in fact, is educating patients in how to stay healthy. A visit to a nurse practitioner always includes receiving common sense guidance in healthy lifestyle changes and illness or injury prevention.

As a family nurse practitioner, Knudtson serves an outpatient role much the same as a primary care physician: examining, diagnosing, prescribing medications and providing 80-90 percent of her patients’ overall care. She refers complex or unusual cases to a specialist, and a physician follows her patients if they’re hospitalized.

Knudtson is certified in both pediatrics and family practice, and is one of UCI’s 26 nurse practitioners – all registered nurses with advanced degrees – working in a range of specialties at UCI Medical Center or its outpatient clinics.

When she’s not seeing patients, Knudtson slips out of her white clinician’s coat and into her second role as clinical professor of family medicine and director of UCI’s Family Nurse Practitioner Program. Begun in 1996, the program prepares registered nurses, some already with master’s degrees, for certification as FNPs. Currently, 30 students are admitted each year; Knudtson hopes to increase that number by adding a geriatric-specialty track. Her longer-term ambition is to see a UCI school of nursing within the next few years.

“There’s a critical nursing shortage in this state and the country that’s going to get worse because we don’t have enough nurses in the pipeline,” she says.

“With her extensive background, Mary could naturally transition to a leadership role in a nursing school,” says Dr. Kathryn Larsen, chair of family medicine and Knudtson’s supervisor. “She’s already a leader in her field, with the respect of patients, as well as her nursing and physician colleagues. I take my own kids to see Mary.”

Knudtson graduated cum laude with a master’s in nursing from Cal State Long Beach. Since coming to UCI in 1995, she has completed a Robert Wood Johnson nursing leadership fellowship and a Department of Health and Human Services fellowship in primary care health policy. By year’s end she will have her doctorate in nursing science in public health with an emphasis in health policy. And she expects to have a proposal for that UCI nursing school submitted, as well.