Nursing as Teamwork
As the Vietnam War carried into its second decade, Gloria McNeal began her first few years as a young nurse. It was the late 1960s when she joined the Navy, and it was the Philadelphia Naval Hospital where she got her start. There, among the steady onslaught of wounded soldiers and emerging scars, she gained what she cites as career-guiding experience.
“Military nursing really set the tone for my career. It exposed me to the leadership aspect of nursing,” McNeal says, explaining dynamics in which nurses can rank at or above the level of their physician colleagues. “I saw nurses using leadership to advance nursing practice, and I saw how important my role was to the field.”
After serving as a naval officer, McNeal would embark on her next chapter in academia. “I arrived at Penn Nursing for my master’s, and quickly found the same core concept I had found in the Navy: leadership.” A recipient of the Penn Nursing Outstanding Alumna award, she looks back on her time with Penn faculty and mentors as being equally transformative to her journey.
And that journey would take her through an accomplished—and trailblazing—career. Over the years, she would evolve from bedside nurse, to researcher, educator, innovator, and administrator. Her latest role is Dean of the School of Health and Human Services at National University in La Jolla, California, where she’s channeling her layers of experience into the next generation of health care.
Over the last two years, McNeal and her team at National University have overhauled the School’s curriculum with a clear vision for the future of health education. “Nursing needs to be an interprofessional experience,” McNeal says. “Some 40 years ago, I remember taking an interdisciplinary course at Penn that emphasized this concept. That was visionary. That was influential.”
As part of their curriculum, National University students from across disciplines work and learn together—including nursing, public health, health care administration, informatics, integrative health, allied health, clinical lab science, radiation therapy, clinical regulatory affairs, and health data analytics.
In addition to the cross-functional nature of their programs, the School’s core principles lie in person-centered health care. “Whether you’re one of the custodial folks or you’re the CEO of the hospital: the patient is at the center of the team,” McNeal says. “That’s what person-centered care is all about. It’s about providing a respectful, inviting environment that revolves around patients and their families.”
The Future of Mobile Care
McNeal’s vision for the classroom was long preceeded by her vision for the clinic. For her, the concept of meeting patients where they are—without access, and without resources—has always been top of mind. And since piloting some of the first mobile units in Pennsylvania and New Jersey some 20 years ago, she asks: What’s next?
“The ‘drive-by’ strategy of mobile clinics has its challenges,” McNeal says. “We are outsiders entering tight-knit communities, and there can be a certain level of mistrust there.” She knew gaining this trust would be key to serving these patients.
As part of a $1.5 million grant from the Health Resources & Services Administration, McNeal and her team have set up five nurse-managed clinics throughout the neighborhood of Watts, an area of Los Angeles with some of the worst health care statistics in the country. But this time, her clinics aren’t on wheels. They’re embedded in places where people live, trust, and worship.
“We’re in churches and community centers where leaders already have the respect of the neighbors,” McNeal says. “Those community leaders are our point of entry. If the Reverend trusts us, the patients will too.”
In addition to the community aspect of the initiative, McNeal cites two other key elements to its success: an interprofessional approach and mobile health technology. As part of their curriculum, National University’s multidisciplinary students—from nursing and public health to informatics and data analytics—work on site and in teams to contribute to the design of the clinics. Likewise, state-of-the-art equipment and telemonitoring devices allow nurses to check in on patients in between site visits, maintaining consistent quality of care via remote access.
“It’s a new delivery-of-care model,” McNeal says. “And it’s working.”
Legacy of Leadership
McNeal’s roots aren’t too far in experience from those living in Watts, and they’re not too far in geography from those studying at Penn. Growing up in North Philadelphia, she understood the correlation between ZIP code and access—whether that be access to health care or access to opportunity.
“I had a mother who made sure I got both,” she says. McNeal’s mother was a nurse, too. An LPN and single parent who worked three jobs to pay for private tutors, securing McNeal’s foundation for educational success.
And the fruits of her labor have certainly paid off. McNeal has published more than 150 articles, abstracts, editorials, and book chapters, secured nearly $12 million in extramural grant funding, led multiple institutions of higher education to new heights, and continually advances the nursing practice through technology and innovation. When you ask her where she learned how to be such a strong leader, she’ll talk about her influential experiences in the Navy and at Penn, where she learned from pioneers who were shaping their fields.
But it’s likely she began learning about leadership long before that—long before her distinguished career took flight. “My mother was inspiring. She was hardworking, passionate, and driven,” McNeal says. “Like most nurses are.”
The projects referenced in this article are supported by two Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) initiatives: under grant number UF1HP26986, Nurse Education, Practice, Quality and Retention – Veterans’ Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program for $1.4 million, and under grant number UD7HP28533, NEPQR-IPCP for $1,549,656. The information provided, content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.