Imagine being a nurse practitioner serving patients in a county that’s larger than Rhode Island, but has just 5,300 residents and one medical clinic.

In the West, that’s the reality – and the challenge – for many rural healthcare providers.

But that’s the kind of practice Jaclyn Thatcher wants, so she designed a final project for her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree at the WSU College of Nursing that could have useful application in a rural setting.

Thatcher’s project tested group medical visits for patients with chronic pain, an approach that recognizes the prevalence of chronic pain in rural populations and the shortage of healthcare providers in those areas.

Groups averaging seven patients attended 90-minute, bi-monthly sessions with a healthcare provider. They shared their stories, participated in facilitated discussions, and during a portion of the visit, met privately with the healthcare provider for medical tests, prescription refills, or reviews of lab results.

Thatcher found that patient and provider satisfaction with the group visits was exceptional – 19% higher than regular office visits. Patients’ quality of life improved, with their confidence in their ability to manage their pain increasing by 26%. And their opioid use fell by 4%.

“It’s a really effective model for primary care practices to help their patients manage pain,” Thatcher said.

The perspective that other people are struggling with similar issues had a powerful effect, she said.

“Their pain may still be 8 out of 10, but when they have that support it’s incredible,” she said.

As one patient said in evaluating the group medical visits, “Pain is lonely.”

Thatcher’s project was honored last month at WSU Health Sciences’ Inland Northwest Research Symposium.

She graduated with her DNP degree last week, preparing her for a career as a family nurse practitioner. Before she can start her practice in rural Idaho, however, she’ll live in New Jersey for up to five years as her husband pursues a medical residency there.

Thatcher taught at the WSU College of Nursing in Yakima while pursuing her DNP degree, and said, “I’ve had so many opportunities because of WSU. We’ve gone to several national conferences and done some service work in Africa. I was able to teach and be financially stable. It’s been a miracle and WSU made it happen.”

WSU’s DNP class:

The Washington State University College of Nursing graduated its largest-ever DNP class in May 2019, with 39 students statewide. These students were in one of three tracks: Family Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, or Population Health. A bar graph showing the number of DNP graduates by semester/year.