Today we are talking to one of my colleagues – Ms. Trisha Hutton.
Ms. Trisha Hutton, CRNFA, ACNP (student)
Trisha is a certified registered nurse first assistant (CRNFA) . She performs procedures in the operating room such as endovascular saphenous vein harvesting (EVH) for bypass surgery, and assists in other aspects of surgery, such as suturing, retraction and tissue dissection.
Years in the operating room: 16
Years working in cardiac surgery: 8
We’re talking to Ms. Hutton today about her current career and her developing role as an acute care nurse practitioner in cardiothoracic surgery. Ms. Hutton is currently pursuing her master’s degree for certification in acute care, and will be part of a small but growing sub-specialty of acute care nurse practitioners in surgical practices.
As we’ve discussed during past posts; in the midst of a primary care crisis, advanced practice nurses such as nurse practitioners have moved to the forefront of the health care arena. While NPs have worked (successfully) in this role since the creation of the specialty in the late 1960’s – the efforts of NPs in this (and other) roles are just now being recognized.
However, for nurses like Trisha Hutton, the increasing recognition (by surgeons) of the utility of nurse practitioners IN and OUT of the operating room is equally important. So it’s important that nurses like Ms. Hutton receive the exposure to the public that may not always be aware of their role behind the scenes in caring for patients undergoing surgery.
What prompted you to return to school to become a nurse practitioner?
“I felt like something was missing. It was like chapters were missing from a book,” Ms. Hutton states, explaining that while she loves her current role, assisting and caring for patients in surgery – she wants to expand her role to encompass the care of patients outside of the operating room; from admission to discharge.
What drew you to cardiothoracic surgery, specifically?
I have always been interested in vascular surgery, and had been trained by and a vascular surgeon (Dr. Mark Donnelly) who I have worked closely with for many years. When Flagstaff Medical Center started talking about beginning a heart program, I was immediately interested, and Donnelly encouraged me to be involved in it. Also, because of our elevation (7000 ft), there was controversy about the success of our program, and that challenge excited me.
How do you see your role evolving after graduation?
To have the ability to continue my care to patients outside of the operating room. I am looking forward to the opportunity to meet patients pre-operatively, participate in their diagnosis, operate on them, then continue their care through discharge.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope to continue practicing within the CT and vascular specialty, and be comfortable within my expanded role.
Who are your role models?
I began as nurse in the operating room 16 years ago, and was instantly attracted to the vascular specialty. I developed a relationship with a surgeon named Mark Donnelly, a very respected and talented General/Vascular surgeon. When I decided to become a RNFA, he supported me, acted as my preceptor, and taught me how to operate. As mentioned earlier, when word of a heart program started, he encouraged me to join the heart team. That was a bitter-sweet decision for me….learning CT surgery has been a fantastic choice for me and has opened many doors, but it meant leaving a surgeon that I truly enjoyed operating and spending my day with. He has been such an important role model for me and “life” coach (advice ranging from career to parenting!!), and I still miss working with him. More recently, our current heart surgeon Dr. Steve Peterson has been an important role model to me. I joined cardiac surgery with good assisting skills, but he has pushed and challenged me even more. He continues to test me daily, teaching me the finesse of cardiac surgery. Without him I would not be successful within this specialty, and I would never have considered continuing my education. He has given me endless opportunities, pushed me to grow, and I am very grateful for him.
How do you see the nurse practitioner role in comparison to other peri-operative roles? Do you think NPs provide any unique perspectives or contributions to surgical care?
NP’s absolutely offer unique contributions to surgical care! Especially if they have had perioperative experience prior to becoming an advanced practice nurse. I believe continuity of care is an important factor in delivering high quality care to our patients, and if the NP can follow her patient into the operating room, that continuity of care can be achieved. They see and experience first hand what occurs during surgery, which can aid in their post op management.
For instance, if closing an aorta post AVR and the aortic tissue is particularly fragile, the NP will know that post op blood pressure management will be even more critical. If a different practitioner had been operating, that concern may not be communicated adequately. The surgeon who practices with a NP First Assistant can feel at ease knowing that both HIS needs and the patients’ needs will be met. The NP who is familiar with the patient will know just what the surgeon will want in the operating room, will have appropriate equipment, supplies, support staff etc available, therefore making the patients’ surgical experience smooth and uneventful. A first assistant that does not have that relationship with the surgeon or patient (ie family practice MD or TechFA) cannot offer that unique service.
Nurse Practitioners in the operating room? Current issues and controversies
While this seems like a natural and normal progression for many nurses and nurse practitioners within the field – it isn’t as obvious to people outside the profession. Many people including human resources personnel, staffing companies and the surgeons themselves have pre-conceived notions that exclude nurse practitioners, even those with extensive operating room (peri-operative) experience from assisting in the operating room. That role is often exclusively assigned to Physician Assistants, often to the detriment of our profession, our nursing colleagues and the patients.
In fact, in this recent statement and study on the role of surgical assistants (2011) only mentions nurses as assistants as a side note. It fails to recognize the different levels of qualifications (ie. a certified registered nurse first assistant (RNFA) versus a surgical technician (with weeks to months of formalized training).
Now, with the adverse economy, and changes in medicare regulations, nurse practitioners face even more competition for the operating room; the disenfranchised primary care physician. In several of the facilities where I have worked in the past; more and more of these physicians were taking an active role in assisting in surgery. These doctors, often primary care doctors ‘moonlight’ in the operating room as a way to augment their salaries. Conversely, while these physicians had the least amount of surgical training, they were afforded the most reimbursement for their intra-operative role. This array of peri-operative assistants has led to a wide range of skill sets in this patient care role with little research or comparison of effectiveness of these positions.
Ideally, the best ‘surgical assistants*’ would be patient care roles that encompassed the entire patient surgical experience from pre-operative evaluation to patient discharge, which is the spectrum of both nurse practitioners and physician assistants. But only nurse practitioners can bring a holistic, patient-centered approach to this
* The ‘surgical assistant’ title like surgical technician/ technologist has also been designated to another career entirely, with similar focus. However, in this post, we are using the term generically to refer to any individual (NP, RNFA, PA , MD or technician) who acts as an assistant to the surgeon intra-operatively, and performs procedures under the supervision of the attending surgeon.
References/ Literature surrounding nurse practitioners in the Operating Room
Hodson D. M. (1998). The evolving role of advanced practice nurses in surgery. AORN J. 1998 May;67(5):998-1009. Erratum in: AORN J 1998 Jun;67(6):1102
Wadlund D. L. (2001). Graduate education: the perioperative nurse practitioner. Semin Perioper Nurs. 2001 Apr;10(2):77-9