Susan Mullaney decided to be a nurse when she was 5 years old – and never changed her mind.
“I don’t remember why,” she laughs. “There are no medical people in my family.”
She earned her B.S. in nursing at Boston College, then got a job at a hospital as an acute care nurse on the medical-surgical, cancer and neurology wards. Most of her patients were older adults, and she enjoyed caring for them and educating them on how to avoid future hospitalizations.
“I gravitated to the older patients,” she says. “There are older adults who are just amazing with their stories and their histories.”
She decided to pursue a master’s degree and enrolled in UMass Lowell’s gerontological nurse practitioner program in 1991. At the time, she says, it was the only such program in the state. “I found my passion for geriatric care,” she says, due to her clinical experiences, her fellow students, and the faculty – especially her advisor, Prof. Emerita Karen Melillo.
When Mullaney graduated in 1993, she joined a family practice group, caring for patients during office visits, at home and in nursing homes. Next, she worked in a continuing care retirement community, seeing residents in an outpatient clinic or visiting them in assisted living and long-term care. She also started wellness and quality improvement programs.
“Geriatrics are the most complicated patients that we have. You have to look at all the co-morbidities and all the medications, and you have to engage the families, not just the patients,” she says. “You have to work with pharmacists, social workers and (physical and occupational) therapists, and of course the nurses, because you need a whole team.”
In 1999, Mullaney was hired by UnitedHealth Group as clinical manager for a Medicare Advantage plan, Evercare. She rose through the ranks with the help of “great mentors,” becoming executive director of Evercare Hospice around the time she returned to UMass Lowell to earn her doctorate in nursing practice.
Working with Melillo as her advisor again, she developed an assessment tool that nurse practitioners could use to figure out which patients were at high risk of dying within six months. Then, they asked the patients’ care team to have monthly conversations with those patients and their families to plan for end-of-life care.
“I found that if we didn’t have those conversations frequently enough, patients moved in and out of hospitals more,” she says. “It’s really about quantity vs. quality of life, and I really think most of the families prefer quality over quantity.”
Mullaney says she loved the doctoral program and found the course work extremely helpful in her job.
“Doing my project was amazing, and so was learning I could make a policy change in my organization because of the work that I did,” she says. “And that launched me into the next part of my career. That’s when I really moved from practice, taking care of patients, to looking at the system overall.”
Mullaney is now vice president of the Center for Clinician Advancement at UnitedHealth Group. She advocates for advanced care professionals, such as nurse practitioners, and works with external organizations to improve nursing education and help expand the scope of care that advanced practice professionals can provide.
She was just elected to the board of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing as a “practice representative” who will help set curriculum standards for the next generation of nursing students. This comes as students are increasingly learning skills outside of hospital settings because of the shift to outpatient services.
“There are so few patients in the hospital: They’re in their homes; they’re in the provider’s office; they’re in nursing homes, federally qualified health centers and disease management programs,” Mullaney says.
“Looking ahead, it’s my mission to get more people educated about geriatrics,” she says. “When you look at the Baby Boomers, the less-than-optimal outcomes and high costs that they drive, you realize that we need to take better care of our older patients. And a handful of geriatric specialists just can’t do that.”