Doubling Down: BME/BSN Program

two woman students working in a science lab

As baby boomers age, technology advances and the nursing shortage continues, the need for nurses to be able to play an active role in medical device inventions and innovations is at an all-time high. Nurses use a range of medical devices on a daily basis, both simple and complex, in support of diagnosis, treatment and care. They spend more time with patients than any other health care provider, and this puts them in a unique position to recognize ways to enhance patient care and safety and to be at the forefront of patient care device innovations.

Duquesne’s pioneering BME/BSN is the first known dual biomedical engineering-nursing degree program in the country. This innovative program taps into the natural problem-solving skills of nurses and maximizes their potential to transform medical questions into technical solutions.

Launched in 2016, the dual-degree program combines two equally rigorous curriculums and teaches students to apply a unique perspective to both disciplines, says Associate Professor Alison Colbert, who served as the program’s coordinator at the School of Nursing.

“Students learn two very different ways of thinking,” Colbert says. “The engineering side is lab- and science-oriented, and then they move into the accelerated nursing program where thinking and problem-solving revolve around patient care. They learn to work with a foot in both worlds.”

The five-year program brings together two rapidly expanding fields by integrating the clinical knowledge of nursing with the technological aspects of biomedical engineering. Students must be accepted to Duquesne’s biomedical engineering program and then declare their dual major by the conclusion of their sophomore year. They begin the nursing curriculum during their third year and then concentrate on nursing courses in years four and five.

At the end of the program, they will have hands-on biomedical engineering experience and direct patient care, the education required for licensure as a registered nurse, and a BME capstone project for which they will collaborate with health care providers to propose a solution to an unmet need in patient care.

It is a highly specialized program, designed to attract an equally unique breed of student, says John Viator, professor and chair of Duquesne’s Biomedical Engineering Program. “You need to be extraordinarily smart, as well as multitalented and high achieving,” Viator says, “not only to be accepted to this program, but also to succeed in it. Both curriculum paths are challenging.”

Viator, who joined Duquesne in 2013 specifically to develop the biomedical engineering program, credits Nursing Dean Mary Ellen Smith Glasgow as the driving force behind the BME/BSN program. “This program is her brainchild,” he says. “She approached me soon after I arrived on campus, and I was immediately intrigued by her idea and the opportunity it presented. She took the lead and was instrumental in gaining approval.”

Identifying Needs and Solutions

Student engineers in the program gain hands-on experience in fundamentals including programming, thermodynamics and electronics, along with in-patient care at Pittsburgh area health care facilities. As part of the program, students partner with health care and technology organizations for a capstone project that articulates an unmet patient care need and then proposes a solution. “The capstone is a sophisticated engineering project that is defined by the student’s clinical experience,” Viator says. “They are not just thinking about a need. They have identified that need in their nursing rotations so it is very real, and that makes this project especially valuable.”

Kim Stafford, HS’19, N’19, the program’s first graduate, exemplifies the problem-solving focus the program nurtures. In one of her courses, Stafford used CAD/CAM software and 3D printing technology to develop a tracheostomy model with more realistic physiological characteristics for use in training nursing students.

Stafford’s capstone project was a partnership with fellow biomedical engineering students and a University of Pittsburgh researcher. The group explored the feasibility of developing a device that electronically detects and quantifies neuropathy – damage to the peripheral nervous system that can lead to numbness or weakness.

“The device I proposed is a sleeve that clinicians place against a patient’s skin to detect inflammation and measure changes in microvasculature to indicate neuropathy,” Stafford says. “Our testing showed that, in theory, we could detect and quantify inflammation.”

The opportunity to come at health care problems from an engineering perspective also attracted Ian Ferris, now in his fourth year in the program. “I love the engineering side – the math, electronics, working with computers and on bio signals and systems” he says. “As I start my nursing courses, move into clinical rotations and gain nursing experience, I am sure my focus will change.”

Ferris sees his interests intersecting in areas like orthotics or prosthetics, but he is keeping an open mind as he begins his nursing immersion. “I want to work hands-on with patients in an area such as prosthetics,” he explains. “But I can also use my nursing knowledge to better understand how medical devices work, then explore ways to make them more ergonomic or efficient.”

Maximum Career Flexibility

One of the obvious paybacks of the rigorous program is the career opportunities it offers graduates like Stafford, who works as a circulator nurse in the neurosurgery department at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. “My day starts by getting the room set up for the first surgery, gathering medications, equipment and any implants they may need. Then I ensure the patient has been checked in and properly positioned,” she says.

“I do not scrub in for surgery. Instead, I document activity, handle details for the surgeon, check with the anesthesiologist and update the patient’s family. What I value so much about this role is that I get to see the surgeries and what they require in terms of devices and equipment – the engineering side – and then from the nursing side, I see the need for the surgery and how to best care for a patient.”

Her experience is shaping her perspective, which will guide her if her career takes her into the engineering field. “I felt that I needed clinical experience as a foundation, so I have credibility as a clinician moving forward,” she says. “Working as a nurse enables me to gain experience with technology and devices, work with manufacturers and gain insight into the products and how they perform. Just as important, I get to see what works, what does not work and why.

“The surgical field is a fertile area for innovation. Medical equipment and device manufacturers rely heavily on user feedback, so the insight I am gaining is invaluable.”

An In-Demand Skillset, a Chance for Lasting Impact

Employability and earning power are key reasons for considering a BME/BSN degree. “Our engineering graduates always place very well, and this degree adds a great deal of flexibility,” Viator points out. “If you have either a nursing degree or an engineering degree, you will always be employed. But the real value is being employed as a nurse engineer.”

“I am keeping an open mind about my career once I graduate,” Ferris says. “In addition to coursework, we participate in a lot of activities that help build contacts in both areas so we can see how the degrees cross in the real world. And even if I gravitate toward the engineering side, I am still a registered nurse.”

“My job search was pretty stress free,” Stafford says. “Having this degree tells an employer that even if I do not yet have specific experience, I am highly teachable and adaptable. In addition to seeing the technology and devices used in this field, I am gaining product insight. I feel like this will provide a valuable foundation for when I return to the engineering side. This path and degree will continue to give me control over my career path.”

“The BME/BSN program is attracting smart, energetic people who want to make a difference and are committed to solving complex health care problems,” Colbert agrees. “This degree allows them to take any number of paths to achieve their goals.” 

This article has been reprinted from Nursing Magazine, Vol. 6.


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