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College of Nursing


Center for Connected Health

Charting a new course for health

by Laura Kammerer, laurakam@mailbox.sc.edu


Tena McKinney follows her internal compass.

As an undergraduate student, she explored various health sciences careers, seeking a path that aligned with her personal philosophy. McKinney, associate professor and former director of the College of Nursing’s psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program (PMHNP), found a match in nursing, with its holistic, patient-centered approach emphasizing patient education and empowerment.

“When people set out to live their passion and live their life according to their values, before you know it, they’ve taken amazing steps and they’ve got it.  I knew I wanted to be in a profession that helps people.”

-Dr. Tena McKinney, on her accomplishments

Her recent successes include winning an award for excellence in clinical leadership from the National League of Nursing and securing a grant from The Duke Endowment for an innovative, interprofessional telehealth education and training program at USC.

McKinney began her graduate education with a focus on advanced practice women’s health nursing. While completing a clinical rotation in a women’s health clinic, she found that she enjoyed working with women but was frustrated by the brief clinical encounter time, which made it difficult to speak with patients about psycho-social issues that were important to their health and well-being.

Rather than dropping out of the program, she switched gears and signed up for a psychiatric-mental health advanced practice nursing course.

There, McKinney could finally help patients navigate issues that affected every aspect of their well-being rather than only focusing on ‘physical’ conditions. She realized she had an aptitude for helping clients process situations and issues that diminished their quality of life and put them at risk for the development of chronic disease. She had found her practice niche and continues to see patients as a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner.

As her career progressed, however, she realized that to make a bigger impact on patient care, she would need to do more than care for the patients in her charge — she would need to change how patients are cared for altogether.

Following her inner voice, she became a nurse educator where she has taught scores of advanced practice nurses to treat patients with mental health conditions and expanded students’ ability to apply population health principles to their practice.

She is consistently recognized for teaching excellence, receiving, among other accolades, the Office of the Provost’s 2016 Clinical Practice Teaching Award. In addition, she won the 2014 South Carolina Excellence in Teaching award for developing the collaborative clinical curriculum in mental health nursing to increase faculty-student-staff nurse engagement and expand students’ interdisciplinary clinical opportunities.

At Carolina, she is transforming mental health care delivery in South Carolina by developing an interprofessional telehealth education program to increase the number of mental health nurse practitioners in the state, an initiative funded by The Duke Endowment grant and the USC College of Nursing. As it stands now, 41 of South Carolina’s 46 counties are underserved for mental health, meaning that many patients do not receive treatment.

The telehealth program builds on her work co-developing the PMHNP program where she secured stakeholder buy-in for advanced nursing practice to transform mental health care from state government agency and health system leaders across South Carolina. McKinney also actively promotes the program to undergraduate students, contributing to application numbers that consistently surpass benchmarks by two- and three-fold.

Duke grant funds are being used in part to purchase equipment for rural clinics to deliver telehealth services while grant funds from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of South Carolina funded the development of telehealth simulations and provided scholarships for rural PMHNP students. The Fullerton Foundation and the National Student Nurses Association provided upfitting of the College of Nursing simulation laboratory to better suit psychiatric simulations with human actors as patients instead of the mannequins used in medical nursing simulations.

“Everything I have accomplished at the College of Nursing is a result of teamwork, dedicated colleagues, simulation experts, course designers, operations people, technology support and college and external funding,” McKinney said. “If I didn’t have this support, none of these accomplishments would have happened.”