Ellen Lewis
“When I entered the profession ... nurses were considered generalists [and] the healthcare/hospital industry was not highly regulated,” says Ellen Lewis, who recently received the 2011 Diane F. Cooper Lifetime Achievement Award in nursing. “Today, new graduates find a very different reality.” Hoang Xuan Pham / University Communications

Ellen Lewis’ impact on the nursing profession extends well beyond her success in establishing UC Irvine’s Program in Nursing Science.

As UC Irvine Medical Center’s director of nursing services in the 1980s, she laid the groundwork for patient-care standards that led to the hospital becoming Orange County’s first to earn Magnet designation, recognizing its high-quality care, nursing excellence and professional practice innovation.

And as project director for the California Strategic Planning Committee for Nursing in the ’90s, Lewis created a game plan to help overcome the state’s serious shortage of nurses with bachelor’s degrees.

From that effort came the foundations of nursing science at UCI, which offers Orange County’s first four-year bachelor’s degree program in that field and an innovative nurse practitioner master’s program to address the growing need for more primary-care specialists in California.

For these accomplishments, Lewis recently received the 2011 Diane F. Cooper Lifetime Achievement Award — one of the highest honors bestowed in nursing — from NurseWeek/Nurse.com.

This year marks Lewis’ 50th in nursing, and although officially retired, she remains active at UCI as a member of nursing science’s leadership council.

Q: How has nursing changed over the past five decades?
A: When I entered the profession, I was expected to hit the floor running. My orientation at the hospital consisted of a 30-minute session with the director of nursing. Back then, nurses were considered generalists. The healthcare-hospital industry was not highly regulated, and the standard of care often reflected the quality of the medical and other professional staff.

Today, new graduates find a very different reality. Orientation in acute-care facilities is often three to six months in length, depending on what specialty the new nurse has chosen. The majority of nurses are specialists and care for patients in dynamic specialty-unit environments. The healthcare industry is highly regulated, and nurses are focused on evidence-based care and patient safety issues to ensure appropriate outcomes.

Q: How did UCI’s Program in Nursing Science come about?
A: In 2004, UCI created an infrastructure for a nursing science program. At the same time, the state — as well as Orange County — experienced a severe shortage of registered nurses, and the existing nursing education system did not have the capacity to expand. Orange County, with a population of more than 3 million people, did not have a four-year baccalaureate program for students who qualified for university study and wanted a career in nursing.

The University of California system had also completed an internal study of future health science workforce needs and what UC could do to help meet them. One conclusion was to support a new undergraduate program at UCI and to expand or add more graduate programs throughout the state. The stars aligned, and our Program in Nursing Science was established in May 2006.

Q: With an increasingly educated and highly trained workforce, where is the nursing profession heading?
A: Early this spring, the national Institute of Medicine – in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – issued “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.” This report had several recommendations, such as that nurses should practice to the full extent of their education and training and should be full partners with physicians and other medical professionals in redesigning U.S. healthcare. It also advocated that the number of nurses with bachelor’s degrees increase from 50 to 80 percent by 2020 and that the number with doctorates double by then. This will require the profession to focus, engage and collaborate with all stakeholders in the health policy arena.

Q: Nursing science has become one of UCI’s most popular majors. Why is it attracting so many bright, dedicated students?
A: Students are drawn to nursing because the profession offers so many exciting, challenging and distinctive employment opportunities in the healthcare industry across the nation and internationally. They’re often altruistic and want to make a difference in this world by positively affecting the health of another person or a community. The students are usually concerned with health disparities and want to work with diverse populations to improve access to care and health outcomes. Many want to go on to graduate programs as their careers mature. The rigor of our curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate levels provides the foundation for future academic pursuits.

Q: You’ve been a nurse for 50 years, and although you’re officially retired, you’re as busy as ever. Can a nurse ever retire?
A: After I retired from UCI in 2008, my family gave me a Green Bay Packers Brett Favre football jersey and accused me of retiring and returning to the game more than he did. When people ask me if I’m retired, I respond by saying “sort of.” No, nurses do not retire, and to use a game analogy, they just start the next play by repositioning themselves on the field or by standing on the sidelines and cheering on their replacements.