Next fall, the School of Nursing will offer a new type of degree for the very first time: the doctorate of nursing practice.

The new graduate option, which was announced Sept. 16, aims to provide students with expertise and knowledge of not only the clinical practice procedures that characterize the regular doctoral program but also of nursing management, leadership and policy, Dean of the School of Nursing Margaret Gray said. The two-year program will offer flexible study opportunities for its first 12-person class as well as a practical experience replacement for the traditional dissertation, administrators said.

“The program aims to create policy leaders who will make a change,” Gray said.

Associate nursing professor Margaret Moss, who will be the director of the program, said the main characteristic of the new degree is its focus on clinical practice rather than academic research. Instead of a dissertation, students will complete a project that involves tackling a current issue in health care policy, such as health insurance.

The program is also unique, Moss said, because of its flexibility. Students enrolled in the degree course are able and encouraged to take intensive online courses, enabling them to conduct their practical projects in cities around the United States. Moss said that, ideally, students will be already employed in a clinical setting and will base their project around their experience.

Moss currently directs the nursing, management, policy and leadership speciality at the nursing school. This program, she said, greatly influenced the creation of the new doctoral option.

The practice degree, which will be limited to 12 spots in the fall of 2012, was appropriately timed, Gray said. Other health care fields do not focus as much on policy issues as the holistic field of nursing, she noted.

“It’s now a critical time for implementing reform in the health care system,” she said. “There are more people underinsured now.”

The Institute of Medicine’s October 2010 report “Future of Nursing” also influenced the creation of the program, Gray said. The report states that while the nursing profession, with more than 3 million members, is the largest segment of the nation’s workforce, there continue to be a number of barriers that prevent nurses from being able to respond effectively to the rapidly changing healthcare system. The Nursing School’s new doctoral program hopes to overcome some these barriers by providing nurses with more exposure to policy issues, Gray said.

“What distinguishes nursing from other health professions is attention to patient,” Gray said. “Nurses care about the psychology, behavior and social content in which people live.”

Applicants to the program will be expected to have completed a master’s degree in nursing, and full-time students will be eligible for financial aid.