School of Nursing assistant professor and MGB clinician Jennifer Durning emphasizes caregiver conversations and hand-on training

No matter the clinical situation, MGH Institute Assistant Professor Jennifer Dean Durning teaches her students to always find the joy factor. 

“There's something fun in almost every interaction,” said Durning, a pediatric nurse practitioner for 24 years. “Even with a child who's fearful or crying because they're worried about getting shots, there's usually some way to make a connection over something a little bit goofy, a little bit fun, and perhaps ease their minds a little bit.”

Durning practices what she preaches at Mass General Brigham Community Physicians, where she’s a pediatric nurse practitioner. Along with the children being treated, she knows the adults need attention too, sometimes more than the child who was brought in. 

“I really like to help the adults in the room tap into something that makes them less fearful about whatever their questions are about the child's health,” said Durning, who takes the time to answer every question, no matter how long it takes. “I don't want parents or caregivers waking up at 2:00 am for the next several nights, thinking they don't know anything. I really like to emphasize that careful patient education, and not just delivering it, but ensuring that what you delivered got heard and internalized and actually made some difference. And that doesn't always jive with moving really quickly through a large slate of patients in a day. But I do believe that taking the extra four or five minutes to explain something in greater detail can save us a lot of time on the back end, because then that family isn’t calling back six more times for 6 more visits because they're still so worried or dissatisfied with the lack of information.”

Durning became a nurse practitioner after graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and has been teaching at the MGH Institute since 2015. After earning her PhD in Nursing Education from Villanova University earlier this year, Durning was elevated to assistant professor at the IHP on July 1.  

“Another thing my students hear me say a lot is that every patient encounter is a little bit of a pediatric-themed improv experience,” she said. “With children, you never know what's going to work from one day to the next or one age group to the next.”

What does work is relaying patient experiences to the classroom, an educational aspect she didn’t always see during her school days. 

“I had this one professor who hadn’t touched a patient in more than a decade, so whenever we asked a question, her answer was, ‘I can tell you how we used to do it,’ and that felt so silly. When we’re a very practice focused discipline, we need to be able to say, ‘We have active practices.’ I think that's part of what makes the IHP a good place - most faculty are actively practicing as well as teaching. 

“I like to say, ‘Just last week we were talking about this, and then the next day in clinic, I saw this child. Here's how it actually unfolded compared to what we read in the article or in the textbook.’ I think that that real world piece – having that connection to real life – is a huge part of my success in the classroom.” 

Durning says treating the clinical encounters as a partnership with the caregiver is critical. 

“I'm not the one who defines what the child’s best health is,” noted Durning. “We're working in partnership with the child themselves, and whoever their primary caregiver or adult is that brought them in today. What are their goals? How can I work with them to help them get there?”

In pediatric nursing, enthusiasm toward the patient goes a long way in engagement and cooperation, but for Durning, enthusiasm fused with an individualized touch goes even further. 

“Every time we talk in healthcare it's oftentimes, ‘Well the diabetic in Room 13’ or ‘The concussion in Room 11,’ and I really like to stop and say, ‘You know, this is a 7-year-old with this scenario going on. How is it affecting all the other parts of their lives?’ That's what I like to remind people of – they’re kids who have their family, and they've got their neighborhood, and they've got their classroom at school. And how could this health issue interrupt or bother them in different facets? Just making them feel better is a good goal. But really, seeing them as kids who move through various environments is really crucial.”

Durning, who graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in French and Anthropology before deciding on a new path, is grateful for her decision to get into nursing, especially with the various career avenues it offers. 

“Your nursing knowledge gives you good insight into how to talk to people, and if you can do that, you can probably navigate your way through most clinical situations,” said Durning. “You'll get more knowledge along the way, but if you can learn how to how to think about people, how to talk to them, how to interpret their cases, that goes a long way.”

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