Loretta Ford, Mother of Nurse Practitioners

Profiles in Nursing

Loretta Ford, Mother of Nurse Practitioners

Created a new nursing practice area

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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At her recent public appearance at the 2015 national conference of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) in New Orleans, Loretta Ford, Ed.D., PNP, FAAN, sported a red cape and a blue shirt emblazoned with a stylized letter “S.”         

According to AANP Fellow Mary Neiheisel, Ed.D., MSN, CNS, FNP, GNP, FAANP, the “S” stands not for Superman (or even Superwoman), but “Supernurse,” a term Neiheisel says AANP members often apply to this pioneering nursing heroine.

During the event, which commemorated 50 years of nurse practitioner programs in the U.S., the AANP presented Ford with an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol building in her honor. It was a well-deserved tribute. Ford, now 95, is the founder of the first program to prepare nurse practitioners — a term she helped to coin — and has worked tirelessly on their behalf.


It all started with Ford’s work as a public health nurse in rural Colorado in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Working with doctors and other nurses in makeshift well-baby clinics to offer health promotion, counseling and vaccination, Ford was struck by the scope of the nurses’ work and responsibilities. “You were the sanitarian, epidemiologist, the vital statistics office—everything,” she said later.

Seeing that, she recognized that “there were a lot of things that nurses could or would do, and that it would be satisfactory for them to run these clinics by themselves.”  

In 1965, Ford and her colleague Henry Silver, M.D., were both professors at Ford’s alma mater, the University of Colorado. Together, they worked to establish a new program and curriculum to give public health nurses additional training in disease prevention and health promotion for children. The result was a new practice model for nurses, which Ford and Silver dubbed the nurse practitioner.

Today, we often hear nurse practitioners suggested as an answer to physician shortages, but Ford says that wasn’t the original motivation. Instead, the goal was “advancing the public health nurses’ depth and breadth in well-child care” and health promotion.

Unsurprisingly, the program had a difficult start. Ford faced mistrust and opposition from many quarters, including not only physicians, but also some nurses and nursing organizations. There was also resistance from nursing faculty members, who Ford says resented the requirement that instructors be active practitioners themselves.

In 1972, after the University of Colorado program was off the ground, Ford moved on to the University of Rochester, where she became the founding dean of the newly independent School of Nursing and director of nursing at the affiliated Strong Memorial Hospital. She exemplified the combination of education, practice and research that has since become the standard for nursing faculty at schools across the country.


It took some time for the nurse practitioner role to become formalized, in part because of legal restrictions on their practice — an issue Ford still finds frustrating. Today, however, there are more than 200,000 active nurse practitioners, the graduates of 325 training programs nationwide, most of them two-year master’s programs. There are also national certifications, something that was still a dream 30 years ago.

Twenty-two states now allow NPs to practice autonomously and recent legislation allows nurse practitioners to receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement under their own provider numbers. A growing body of data indicates that the care provided by NPs does not differ in outcomes from care provided by physicians.

As far as nurse practitioners have come in 50 years, Ford wants to see them go further still and eventually shake off the expectation that they should be subordinate to doctors. “This is a political problem, not a professional problem,” she lamented in a 2014 interview with Beth Houser, RN, DNSc, FNP, NEA-BC, for Reflections on Nursing Leadership. Ford also wants nurses to take leadership roles in patient-centered care, technology and entrepreneurship.

Ford is modest about her own achievements, but she has been widely honored within the profession, receiving many awards and six honorary doctorates. Although officially retired for many years, she continues to lead and inspire. “I’m trying to change the world before I die,” she told Beth Houser.   

Photo above: Loretta Ford, in 1972, giving a speech at the University of Rochester. Courtesy: CNN.com

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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