Silo breaker

Margaret Purden

Margaret Purden, BScN’75, PhD’95, laid the foundation for a new interprofessional education program that she now directs in the McGill Faculty of Medicine. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Purden)

By Philip Fine

Margaret Purden, BScN’75, PhD’95, remembers the reaction when she told her parents she wanted to pursue nursing as a profession. Her mother feared she would catch something fatal from a patient or run off to work “in the Amazon.” Could she, maybe, go into education?

Although her mother’s fears never did come to pass, Purden did forge a nursing career centred on education, developing national standards for master’s and PhD programs in nursing, teaching nursing students, and advancing interprofessional education for health care professionals of all stripes locally, nationally and internationally.

Since 1999, she has served as Scientific Director at the Centre for Nursing Research at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH), where one goal is to continue to expand nursing science. The profession, she explains, is by nature wide in scope. As an example, she cites the careers of two colleagues at the JGH: one has devised a pain scale for unconscious patients; the other holds a chair in psychosocial oncology.

Purden’s own work enlarging our understanding of what it means to be a nurse has earned her the Nursing Alumni Award of Merit for the 2018 Medicine Alumni Global Awards.

From an early age, Margaret was the go-to person when someone in her family had an injury. Her experiences caring for a chronically ill grandparent at home impressed upon her the need for more comprehensive health care services in the community and the important role nursing could play in making this a reality.

She was part of the first wave of Quebec students to attend CEGEP. At the time, many of the colleges did not yet have buildings of their own. Instead, she spent two years on McGill campus. There, she attended lectures filled with 500-plus students or watched her teachers remotely on closed-circuit TV. This left her yearning for more of a connection. She went on to apply for the Bachelor of Science in Nursing at McGill because it offered smaller classes, as well as basic science courses.

She appreciated the philosophy of nursing at McGill. “It’s about learning how to relate to people—to listen, to observe.” She remembers her first patient, a 70-year-old man whom she followed to appointments and procedures. “We would sit in the clinic and, while we were waiting, I’d ask him all kinds of questions. I learned about his past, I learned about his experience in the war, his goals, his fears. At the same time, I was learning about the various diagnostic tests that he had to prepare for. I would read up on them and explain them to him. It really drove home the importance of developing a relationship, of investing in and knowing your patients.”

Margaret maintains that nursing can and should play an expanded role in the health care system. Her views on this matter, she says, were shaped by McGill Nursing legend Dr. F. Moyra Allen, BN’48. When, in 1975, Allen, a former research director at what is now the Ingram School of Nursing (ISoN), was awarded a three-year grant to open a nursing centre in Montreal’s West Island, she hired Purden. At the centre, nurses were encouraged to take on a broad range of responsibilities, from checking in on children’s development, to assessing families for psychological issues, to keeping an eye out for social isolation. Of Allen, Purden says: “She was years ahead of her time.”

Purden’s doctoral work on the psychosocial adjustment of cardiac patients and their families launched her research career. She examined the role of family caregiving and of the marital relationship in patient recovery, as well as the health care costs associated with living with a chronic illness.

It was armed with these research credentials that she took the helm at the Centre for Nursing Research at the JGH where has since put in place an infrastructure to support three nurse scientists. The centre currently holds $13 million in external funding. At the heart of the centre’s philosophy is a grounding in clinical issues. One example of that is a current study on how nurses report to one another during shift changes.

As Director of the newly established Office of Interprofessional Education in the Faculty of Medicine, Purden and her team of educators from nursing, medicine, physical and occupational therapy, and communication sciences and disorders are focusing on breaking down professional silos and bringing together students from the different health professions. In 2005, Health Canada awarded Purden $1.3 million for her project The McGill Educational Initiative on Interprofessional Collaboration: Partnerships for Patient and Family-Centred Practice. This project served as the foundation for establishing a formal interprofessional education program at McGill. Currently, the program reaches 1,400 students annually in the three new courses that are a required part of the curricula.

Although nursing, she says, has come a long way—taking a larger role in the community, improving practices through research, and demanding equal billing in the health professions arena—Purden still feels that nurses must continue to advocate for change where needed. “There’s a tendency for nurses to hold back, be polite.” Ever the encouraging teacher, she adds: “You’re doing your patients a disservice if you’re not speaking up. You have something valuable to share.”


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