New ‘WellNurse’ program will offer care to the caregivers

A new program being developed by the University of Maine will use federal grant money to teach nursing students how to take care of themselves while they care for patients.

The program, “WellNurse,” is being developed using a $1.5 million federal grant. UMaine will be part of a national team researching to build a curriculum to reduce nurse burnout. At Orono, the program will initially be offered to students, but will eventually expand to student nursing programs as well as professional health care organizations.

The goal will be to relieve stress, build resilience and reduce burnout, and develop a systemic approach that’s lacking in the industry, said Kelley Strout, director of the University of Maine’s nursing program.

“Nurses have patients’ lives in their hands,” she said. “In the health care culture, not enough attention is paid to help nurses manage the stress and demands of the job,” Strout said. Nurses must handle a lot of emotion, everything from caring for a young mother who has lost a stillborn to comforting grown children whose mother died from cancer, she said.

The eight-week program will be offered to 413 undergraduate and 43 graduate students, as well as faculty and staff. Students and staff will offer feedback on what coping techniques best help reduce stress, Strout said.

“We need to do a better job taking care of health professionals,” she said. “We’re trying to build in a culture that creates a more resilient nurse. (There are) multiple interventions we’re going to research.”

Strategies will include mindful-based stress reduction, mindful movement and breathing techniques that are similar to yoga practices. Also, the program will help nurses to focus on their own health, such as nutrition training, physical fitness and stress management.

The program will also create ways to train teachers to lead WellNurse courses, instructors who will have to be certified. In three years the curriculum and instructor training will be shared with other organizations and hospitals, Strout said.

UMaine’s three-year award for WellNurse is one of 34 grants nationally. It will be administered by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Several of UMaine’s departments will help develop the WellNurse curriculum, including the School of Food and Agriculture, the Clinical Psychology Program and the New Balance Student Recreation Center for fitness and wellness.

Liam O’Brien, professor of statistics at Colby College, will lead the WellNurse evaluation team, Strout said.

As the first step to study what best helps students, a small pilot program will be offered on campus this spring.

And while the health care system itself needs to better focus on taking care of nurses, public expressions of thanks would help, Strout said.

When COVID-19 first hit, there was an outpouring of support from the community – including applause on the streets and meals donated to hospitals for medical workers – that lifted the spirits of those on the front lines, Strout said. As time has worn on, everyone is tired from the pandemic, and the community’s appreciation has dwindled, she said.

“Health workers could really use another dose of appreciation.”

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