A unique and successful state-recognized alternative discipline program is helping Colorado nurses overcome addictions and mental health problems while keeping their careers on track.
The Colorado Nurse Health Program treats nurses with drug, alcohol, psychiatric and other issues. The program is confidential, non-public and is used by the state board of nursing as an alternative to discipline in certain cases. Nurses can enroll in the program voluntarily, as well.
Executive director Nancy Kehiayan said the program maintains a balance between helping nurses and protecting the public.
"When alternative to discipline programs – which is what this is – first emerged, I think that was a big issue with regulatory agencies, because they regulate the profession," Kehiayan said. "Regulatory agencies, the board of nursing – they’re there to protect the public. To give nurses a chance to get into treatment and not have to experience any board discipline, the board has to have a level of confidence that they will be safe. So they’re delegating a lot of responsibility to our program."
Kehiayan said there are around 40 states with alternative to discipline programs for nurses, but Colorado’s is unique. Many other states have programs that may be separate from the board of nursing, but there is still the appearance of a close connection.
"In this particular state, this is really a unique program. It’s separate from the board of nursing, but the board of nursing has established a committee of experts to administrate our program. I think that’s the added layer that gives more of that sense of confidence and assurance that a group of professional people with expertise is watching over the program," she said.
The committee members are appointed for three year terms, and the makeup includes two nurses in recovery, two nurses with expertise in psychiatric nursing, one chemical dependency nurse specialist and a physician knowledgeable in addiction treatment.
The committee develops policies and criteria for admission, participation and discharge. "I think it’s extremely valuable that [the committee has] nurses who are themselves in recovery. And they need to have a sustained, good recovery," Kehiayan said.
"The committee’s very good about making sure when somebody’s ready to return to work," she said. "It’s a well-planned return. They have a monitoring agreement that outlines how they can practice, how they need to be supervised. They can’t work a lot of overtime – that’s not healthy. They can only work in one area where they have a consistent supervisor. It’s really well monitored."
Kehiayan believes one of the program’s hallmarks is its reputation of credibility with employers. "They’ve employed our participants, they know they have a good track record," she said, adding that about 90 percent of the program’s nurses are employed.
The program is also involved in a lot of outreach and education. Kehiayan said staff members and managers can easily miss the signs of a nurse who needs help. Instead the problem becomes known after a tragedy. "We work very hard to help people be aware that there’s a potential for this problem, and what the signs and symptoms might be, and how to help people get into treatment. We want people to keep their eyes open," she said.
Consultation and referrals are a big part of the program, as well. Even program alumni are available to help guide nurses back to safe practice.
"The nurse recovery community is amazingly generous and supportive of each other," Kehiayan said.
For more information on the Colorado Nurse Health Program, visit www.cnhp.com or call (877) 716-0212.