Dr. Kathleen Elliott: Doctor of Nursing Practice

Doctoral project teaches the art of building trust with substance-use disorder patients.

DNP, College of Nursing
Dr. Kathleen Elliott, far right, with, left to right: Sarah Yates, Alicia Medeiros, Kyle Gallant, and Deborah McKenna

The saying is, "If you want something done, ask a busy person." Dr. Kathleen Elliott, a UMassD nursing lecturer who teaches the art of building trust with substance-use disorder patients, is an outstanding example of the maxim.

Elliott was in her last year of doctoral work, teaching at UMass Dartmouth, and working at St. Luke’s Hospital when she presented at the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities on the topic Community Health Nursing in Haiti: An International Approach to Civic Engagement.

Combining research & teaching

After hearing her presentation at the conference, Matt Roy, assistant vice chancellor for civic engagement at UMassD, invited Elliott to apply for a service-learning fellowship from the Leduc Center for Civic Engagement. With the encouragement and support of Nursing Professors Mary McCurry and Elizabeth Chin, Elliott was then able to combine her research and her teaching.

Her fellowship became her doctoral project. While working at the Gifford Street Wellness Center, an outpatient opioid treatment center in New Bedford, Elliott designed a course to help students learn the needs of the community while providing hands-on patient care.

Many healthcare providers do not feel comfortable interviewing and intervening with people suffering from substance-misuse disorder. And generally, it is not taught in nursing or medical school settings. Elliott is changing that.

Students in her class receive lectures on substance misuse, and then work in a clinical setting for 16 hours. At the clinic, Elliott models how to perform physicals and interviews. Then she observes the students and meets with them one-on-one.

Elliott said, "There is an art to interviewing and performing physicals, and it is very different with substance misuse. These people are suffering. They feel shame, and it is different for each person."

Future nurses are taught how to build trust so patients will be honest with them. A student of Elliott’s reflects, "I was able to use a nonjudgmental approach that
I learned last week by watching my instructor interact with this population."

"Never give up hope"

"We need to let these people know they are doing the best they can by coming back and getting treatment," Elliott said. "We have a duty to connect with them. We must avoid stigmatizing them so they come back."

Elliott stresses to her students how important it is to not be judgmental, and to have compassion: "Never give up hope. Never stop asking: What are you doing? Are you injecting? Are you going to meetings? No matter how many times they have relapsed, or how long it’s been since they’ve been for treatment, you have to keep asking. The minute you stop, they feel you’ve given up on them. You have to give them hope."

Elliott continued, "You can’t learn this from a textbook or simulations. It’s passion. It’s experience. If we treat people without judgment, they’ll trust you and feel a deeper connection that might plant the seed of recovery.

"Many of these people have lost the support of their families and friends. Gifford Wellness Center is a place where those who want to recover can come and be around people who care about them. The methadone clinic is like a family. The clinicians, nurses, and other providers at the Gifford Wellness Center are unsung heroes. They do a tremendous amount of work for people suffering with this awful disease," Elliot said.

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