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Authors

  1. Hunt, Loretta

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Back on her family's farm in Concordia, Kentucky, Charlene Harrington, PhD, RN, learned the value of persistence, a lesson that has kept her going through 30 years of research and policy work, much of it dealing with nursing home reform. This month, "in recognition of outstanding and sustained contribution to geriatric nursing research," Harrington will receive the Doris Schwartz Gerontological Nursing Research Award from the Gerontological Society of America.

  
FIGURE. Charlene Har... - Click to enlarge in new windowFIGURE. Charlene Harrington

Within a few years of her 1963 graduation from the University of Kansas, Harrington began to immerse herself in public health nursing for the Washington Department of Public Health in economically deprived Seattle-King County. She earned a master's degree in community health nursing from the University of Washington and a few years later pursued a joint PhD in sociology and higher education at the University of California at Berkeley.

 

While at Berkeley, Harrington also worked at the Institute of Health and Aging. Remembering the strong relationship she'd had with her grandparents, who lived nearby and played a regular role in her childhood, Harrington was drawn to the plight of the elderly in America. "I think it just appealed to me because older people seemed so vulnerable."

 

Doctorate in hand, Harrington again went to work for the state, eventually becoming the deputy director of the Division of Licensing and Regulation for the Department of Health in California. "A good part of what I had to work on was nursing home issues because there were so many quality problems in nursing homes," she says. "I just got interested in them because there were so many controversies surrounding trying to regulate them."

 

Taking a faculty position at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) in 1980, Harrington was able to continue her involvement in the policy arena. Her work with the Institute of Medicine's National Committee for Nursing Home Regulation contributed to the influential Federal Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987, which created a set of national minimum standards of care in nursing homes that emphasized the resident's quality of life, from individualized care plans to the right to maintain one's financial status.

 

Over the last 20 years, Harrington has written prolifically while aligning herself with various long-term care research projects, committees, and offices. She sees a tremendous need to bring in research money to fund projects, write up the findings, and get them into the right hands. "I've tried to work closely with the consumer groups because they are the ones that do a lot of the lobbying and following legislation."

 

Of course, it takes a certain amount of stamina for policy work, which involves countless hours of poring over books, sitting in front of the computer, sitting through group discussions, and collecting data. "You have to be willing to stick to it because it just takes so long to make change," Harrington says. "You have to have a long-term commitment, but you also have to have a lot of luck working with good people and working in the right place."

 

Among numerous accomplishments, she spearheaded the creation and continues the maintenance of the California Nursing Home Search Web site (http://www.calnhs.org), which provides ratings of all the nursing homes, home health care, and hospice care in California in one comprehensive database.

 

In the last four years, Harrington has also started a nursing PhD program with a health policy specialty at UCSF, which now has more than 30 students enrolled. A role model in policy reform, Harrington receives numerous calls from interested nurses. "If you focus on what the issue is," she advises, "then you don't worry about whether or not you know about it. If you feel really strong about things, you forget about yourself. Find something you're passionate about, jump into it, and start working on it."