By Randy Barnhart, contributor
Linda Aiken, Ph.D., RN, grew up in the college town of
Gainesville, Florida, where much of family life centered around activities at
the University of Florida.
For as long as she can remember, she said, she wanted to be
a nurse. She would have become a remarkable nurse wherever she had studied, but
Aiken’s choice of the new college of nursing at her hometown university proved
to be a central decision in her life. Dorothy Smith, dean of the school of
nursing, became Aiken’s mentor and role model. The dean noticed her even when
she was an 18-year-old freshman.
Aiken believes that Dean Smith, who was also the chief of
nursing practice at the university’s teaching hospital, created an ideal nursing
environment, teaching the importance of basing the practice of health care upon
“I’ve always loved nursing, from the first day of school,”
Aiken said. “Being a student nurse was intellectually challenging. It demanded
competence, good judgment, and forced us to make decisions.” She felt that every
new patient presented her with a different puzzle to solve.
Aiken said she also learned from Dean Smith that nurses
were professionals who had the responsibility to be inquisitive, see the big
picture, and publish. The college of nursing was part of a new health sciences
center that emphasized the equality of the disciplines and the importance of
interdisciplinary learning. The rich culture encouraged questioning. It fueled
Aiken’s curiosity and taught her to consider long-range implications and
After graduating, Aiken discovered that nursing practice
was different from the academic world she had left. Her education had taught her
to see far beyond an immediate situation, while nurses in practice focused on
what was right before them. Realizing that much of what she saw in the hospital
lagged behind that which she had learned in school, Aiken tried to apply her
college studies to the outside world of health care. She found herself returning
to the principles she had learned in school—ask important questions, do rigorous
research, base practice upon evidence, and strive to see the big picture.
Aiken soon experienced the difficulty of being young, new
and trying to makes changes in an environment that had been entrenched for
years. She said she didn’t want to wait “the 40 years it would take to have the
clout” to affirm her ideas. She turned to earning a Ph.D. Not only would she
learn more, the degree would give her the respect she needed to put her ideas
into practice. It was while she was working on her Ph.D., she said, that she
realized she could have an influence on health care. Her doctorate in sociology
and demography gave her new tools to ask the right questions and report her
For more than 20 years, Aiken has made major contributions
to studies of health care workers and outcomes research. She is recognized for
pioneering research using statistical data to link nurse-to-patient ratios and
patient safety. Her influential work also includes the development of Magnet
hospitals across the nation. She is director of a multi-state study of nursing
care and patient safety currently in the field, which involves surveys of 225,000
nurses and the outcomes of tens of thousands of patients in California,
Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The study will yield important information on the
link between nursing practice and patient outcomes in hospitals, nursing homes,
and home care, in addition to providing information on why some nurses have left
Hospitals are beginning to make important changes in
nursing and improvement of patient safety, she said. She believes that her most
important task today is to continue to educate the health care community and the
public about the key role nurses play in keeping patients safe.
Aiken has won every major award in the field of nursing and
health services research and is a member of many prestigious organizations,
including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of
Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
She is the Claire M. Fagin Leadership Professor of Nursing,
a professor of sociology, and director of the Center for Health Outcomes and
Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining the University
of Pennsylvania, she was vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
She directs the International Hospital Outcomes Study in eight countries and
recently completed a nursing quality initiative in Russia and Armenia
demonstrating the applicability of Magnet hospital standards in developing
nations of the world.
© 2006. AMN Healthcare, Inc. All Rights Reserved.