Lia Barros, a critical-care nurse at UW Medical Center, wanted to quit her job and move to Brazil. But her boss wouldn’t let her go.
“She said, ‘Hold on. Before you quit, let’s see what we can do,’” says Barros. Together, they devised a plan for Barros to volunteer in Brazil for six months, and then return to her job.
The experience was transformative. Barros thought — Why isn’t this opportunity available to all nurses as a part of their regular professional development? That’s when she decided to create the International Nursing Program (INP) at UW Medical Center.
Keeping nurses inspired
Through the INP, UW Medical Center sponsors nurses to travel to Cambodia, Vietnam or Nepal for two to three weeks. In exchange, participants agree to an additional year of employment at the hospital.
Nurses travel in pairs, relieving a team when they arrive in a partnering country. They share their knowledge of best practices with nurses abroad, who then, in turn, become nurse educators for their hospitals.
In addition to imparting knowledge, our nurses benefit tremendously from immersion in a completely different environment, says Barros. Returning nurses express a renewed appreciation for the fundamentals of nursing, like the physical exam, and a heightened awareness around their use, or overuse, of resources.
They also gain a deeper understanding of the cultures they visit, so when a traveling nurse returns to the U.S., they are better able to provide culturally competent care to patients from these regions.
But perhaps the biggest reward is a feeling of renewed appreciation for their profession. Barros recounts one participant who was ready to quit nursing altogether, but changed her mind after participating in the program.
“Instead of losing this incredible nurse, she felt re-inspired to engage in a whole different way,” says Barros. “She become a leader at UW Medical Center, working with palliative and end-of-life care to help our patients.”
A true exchange of knowledge
When Barros was volunteering in Brazil, she realized that nurses abroad were just as hungry for educational enrichment as she was.
“You can see many of these nurses in developing countries are really craving structure and education as a way to help their patients,” says Barros. “They understand that without ongoing educational opportunities, it’s hard for them to provide the best care.”
That is why, in addition to nurses from the U.S. traveling abroad, the INP also hosts up to four nurses every year from partner countries, primarily from Cambodia. Visiting nurses stay with local nurses and doctors while they have a three-week observational experience at UW Medical Center.
“We try to show them what it looks like when nurses are empowered to practice at the full extent of their license and how that creates this really incredible system to provide excellent patient care,” says Barros.
After participating in the program, visiting nurses report not only feeling more knowledgeable, but also more confident, which helps them feel better prepared to talk with physicians and advocate for their patients at home.
Because of travel bans due to the COVID pandemic, the program has had to take a step back this year. However, Barros says, in collaboration with an international task force they have used the time to publish recommendations on caring for patients with severe COVID-19 disease in low- and middle-income countries. They have also expanded virtual services starting with a pilot project for cancer care and palliative care.
The power of a good support system
When Barros’ boss worked with her to foster her professional development and keep her on the team, it sent a strong message: you are valued.
“UW Medical Center wants to invest in my skills, my strengths and my education because they understand the value of my work for patients. They know it’s one of the most important things you can do to improve patient outcomes,” says Barros.
Other nurses feel similarly. In addition to a renewed appreciation for their profession, they feel grateful to their place of work for providing them with an opportunity for growth.
In the future, with additional funding, Barros hopes to expand the reach of the INP so more nurses can benefit. She can think of no more worthy cause than investing in nurses and the institutions that support them. Doctors around the world depend on nurses for much of the healthcare delivery.
“If you want to have a meaningful impact for the health of the entire community — invest in the nursing community,” says Barros. “And one great way to do that is to invest in an organization that empowers nurses both here and abroad.”
Written by Eleanor Licata