The Future of Nursing is Global Commitment: Columbia Nursing’s Jennifer Dohrn on Building Partnerships that Foster Global Nurses

Jennifer Dohrn, DNP, had a previous life and a Bachelor of Arts degree in History before she discovered her love of nursing and midwifery and global health equity. Currently the director of Columbia Nursing’s Office of Global Initiatives, she says it was the birth of her own children that unearthed her drive to become a midwife. She went on to get a nursing degree, entered Columbia Nursing’s master’s program in midwifery, and also received her Doctorate in Nursing Practice from Columbia Nursing.

Dohrn currently oversees the collaboration between Columbia Nursing and Columbia Global Centers and leads the Columbia Nursing World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Advanced Practice Nursing and is also an associate professor. She previously served as the program director of the Nurse Midwifery program at Columbia Nursing, and as project director for the ICAP Nurse Capacity Building Program/Nursing Education Partnership Initiative Coordinating based at Mailman School of Public Health. There, she worked with countries to improve the quality, quantity and relevance for nurses and midwives in 12 Sub Saharan African countries in the midst of the HIV pandemic.

She returned to Columbia Nursing four years ago to help build the newly created Office of Global Initiatives, in an effort to lay out a more comprehensive plan to transform nursing education to prepare graduates for relevance and leadership in global health.

What first made you interested in global health?

I have always considered myself a global citizen. I grew up in an age of great upheaval in the world of national liberation movements—the black power movement, women’s rights, etc., so my first consciousness was always thinking globally.

When I finally found my true calling in nursing, I was lucky enough to be hired immediately after I graduated. I worked to build the first birthing center in an inner-city community in the country. I spent 20 years building, working, and thriving in the Southwest Bronx community, serving a very diverse population of women who did not have access to high quality care. Looking back, it was a true mosaic of how global American life is and can be. We had women from all over the world resettled in the Southwest Bronx, a very impoverished community, building their lives and their families. It was an example of how global this country truly is. The birthing center also demonstrated a successful model led by nurse-midwives for care for women and families.

When did you take that global lens and apply it to nursing outside of the US?

My own personal life lead me to start working as a midwife in South Africa, when my husband was killed there while working on the new constitution with Nelson Mandela. I always felt that part of our journey was to be there.

I started going back to South Africa in 2003 while still on faculty at Columbia Nursing. I ended up being in the middle of the HIV pandemic. I saw midwives working on the front line, midwives dying, families dying, women dying. I had never imaged what it was like to be in a pandemic that seemed to have no end. From then on I have never looked back.

I’ve spent the last 14 years finding roots, connecting, and being very fortunate to look at how midwives can make great changes. In 2010, nurses in South Africa got the legal right to prescribe anti-retroviral treatment for HIV. Seven years before there had been no medications, and now nurses were actually on the front line, managing treatment. What a victory, and you know what happened? Mother to child transmission was reduced to less than 10 percent. Thousands of clinics opened, which allowed people to initiate treatment earlier, and it changed the face of the pandemic. Many factors came together, but certainly giving nurses and midwives the ability to manage HIV care changed and turned that epidemic around.

What was the driving force behind your decision to agree to help build and lead the Office of Global Initiatives here at Columbia Nursing?

In my career I have watched educational programs for nurses transform in many ways. Faculty earn higher degrees, learn to use simulation labs as a method of teaching, have nursing counsels expand scopes of practice, and many more nurses and midwives enter and graduate from nursing and midwifery schools with higher numbers and strengthened capacities. What could be better?

The opportunity to build the Office of Global Initiatives was just a natural fit for me. It allowed me to take things I had seen, people I knew, relationships I had built, and say, ‘yes I want to be a part of this journey for Columbia University School of Nursing.’ The goal is to transform and frame education in a global lens. We must be responsive to the global community.

In July, your office will host the third and final Global Nursing and Midwifery Clinical Research Development Initiative Summit in Amman, Jordan. What do you hope to accomplish?

This Summit has the potential for great contribution in improving global health outcomes because it focuses on clinical research being done around the globe by researchers directly impacted by the issues they study. For example, 65 million of people have been displaced and are now in a refugee or migrant situation in this world. What do they need for best care? What research should we be doing? How can we come together with people in these affected countries to find answers to the significant humanitarian and health crisis’ happening at this very moment?

People in Southern/Eastern African and Eastern Mediterranean regions are doing stellar research that directly impact their communities and have serious global implications. However we noticed that such researchers often do not have the support they need. Our goal is to connect, collaborate, and produce research that will have lasting outcomes. 

After all, as a clinician at heart, I know that we cannot have our best practices if we don’t have evidence and research to back them up.

Finally, why is it important to foster global nurses in today’s society?

I think technological advances have certainly transformed the need for the nursing profession to see itself as global. Now to be a nurse, you have to understand what nursing is like everywhere. Ebola certainly taught us that. At the time, there were big pronouncements that Ebola would never come to the United States, and a week later, Eric Duncan got on a plane from Liberia, went to Dallas, and unfortunately did not receive appropriate diagnosis and treatment for Ebola and died. That was certainly an awakening that viruses do not know borders.

My goal in teaching students at Columbia Nursing is to teach global health equity. Entering this profession we have an ethical and moral responsibility to deal with injustice and disparity. That means here and that means everywhere. We need to get rid of this concept of us versus them. When it comes to global healthcare, we are all in this together.