NIEHOFF SCHOOL OF NURSING Conversation with the Dean
Listen, learn, lead.
Lorna Finnegan has spent decades fighting for health equity, as both a nurse practitioner and a nursing scholar. As the new dean of the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, Finnegan will extend that battle on Loyola University Chicago's Health Science Campus, training a new generation of mission-driven health care professionals.
Here, Finnegan talks about the start of her career and her long-term priorities at Niehoff.
How have you spent the first two months?
I’ve spent the first few months finding everything, first of all. I’ve met with faculty on campus (Lake Shore and Health Sciences), plus my administrative team, executive committee, and staff. Most importantly, I’m getting to know people and I’m doing a lot of listening. I presented my initial impressions and ideas at our academic council meeting and received positive feedback.
What were the themes of your talk?
Listen, learn, and lead. I talked about my background, what I’ve learned, and my plan for going forward, which includes some focused listening sessions with faculty and staff to find out where we need to grow. This is an extremely strong school. I am thankful for my predecessor, Vicki Keough, for her work in getting the school to this point. There’s not anything here that needs to be changed quickly, but there are opportunities for growth, particularly thinking about the rapidly changing health care and higher education landscapes. Leaders in nursing are already planning the Future of Nursing 2020-2030, focused on advancing the profession to help our nation create a culture of health, reduce health disparities, and improve the health and well-being of the population. We need to think beyond that and leverage the strengths of Niehoff to prepare nurses for 2040. Even though that’s 20 years from now, envisioning that future will help us determine where and how we need to grow.
How did you get started working in nursing in the first place?
I have all three of my degrees—bachelor’s, master’s, PhD—from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I began working as a nurse in acute care, mainly in surgical and cardiac intensive care. In the mid-1980s, I shifted my focus to public health and primary care and I became a family nurse practitioner (FNP).
FNPs provide primary care across a person’s lifespan. We blend clinical expertise in diagnosing and treating health conditions with an added emphasis on disease prevention and health management. With a focus on health promotion, disease prevention, and health education and counseling, we guide patients in making better health and lifestyle choices, which in turn can lower patients' out-of-pocket costs.
Throughout my career, I have focused on increasing access to primary care and improving health in vulnerable and underserved populations. In the late-1980s, I began teaching at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Along with faculty colleagues, I started an FNP program there. At the same time, we started two clinics, where faculty and students collaborated to provide primary care. One was a school-based clinic near UIC. The school’s principal listened to a nurse practitioner (NP) panel presentation at St. Xavier and he was excited about what NPs could do. We started this clinic in a closet, probably one-third the size of my office here, and we just started by making sure all of the students were immunized. We applied for and received federal and state funding, which allowed us to develop a clinic based on a nursing model of primary health care. We worked with the community to define health needs and a plan to address them. By October of every year, if the students didn’t have their immunizations and physical exams, they would be excluded from school. When we started the clinic, 250 students were excluded from school due to lack of physical exams and inadequate immunizations. Within one year, our outreach tactics decreased the numbers of excluded students to nine.
Along with that, we started a second clinic in [the south suburb of] Chicago Heights. This was before the Affordable Care Act, so there were residents who worked but who did not have insurance and could not qualify for Medicaid. When we started that clinic, we charged $5 a visit. We were really helping people get back into the health care system. Ultimately, both of these clinics evolved into federally qualified health centers. The Chicago Heights clinic is now part of the Access Community Health Network, which is an important clinical practice partner with Niehoff.
When I finished my PhD, I moved to UIC to pursue research that was inspired by my FNP practice, where I saw many patients with chronic illnesses seeking care for relief of clusters of symptoms that were often not related to specific illnesses. Using big data analytics, I focused on defining subgroups of individuals defined by unique symptom clusters. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, I expanded this work with long-term childhood cancer survivors and developed a framework that provides valuable new direction for the development of group interventions targeted to reduce symptom clusters in primary care. At UIC College of Nursing, I also moved into leadership positions as department head and executive associate dean.
I really didn’t anticipate being a dean. When the search committee contacted me, at first I told them I was happy where I was. Then I started looking into Loyola and was intrigued by everything that’s happening in the School of Nursing and the Loyola community. The Niehoff mission, with its focus on service to others within the Jesuit, Catholic tradition, was a good fit with my work with vulnerable and underserved populations. I thought, “This really is a great place.” When I came for my interview, I was even more impressed, especially by the welcoming environment. Even though I’ve been a Chicagoan all my life, I’d never seen Lake Shore Campus until I interviewed. I was amazed at the beauty. It wasn’t only the physical beauty of the campus—I think it’s just amazing here. I’m happy I made the decision to join the Loyola community.