What is a DNP Capstone Project?

As the proposed 2015 DNP deadline nears, more and more nurse practitioners and NP students are electing to get doctorate degrees. As with any transition, the push to make the DNP mandatory has raised a lot of questions, one being “what exactly is included in the DNP curriculum?”. The answer? A major component of every DNP program across the country is the DNP capstone project.

What is a DNP capstone project?

There are two main types of doctorate programs in nursing, the PhD and the DNP. In PhD programs, students are essentially prepared to become nurse scientists. PhD students complete a dissertation which is usually a research-focused project. DNP students, however, focus on bringing this scientific knowledge into practice and integrating it into patient care. So, DNP students complete a practice-focused project. This project is known as the DNP capstone project.

The DNP capstone project synthesizes knowledge from the nursing education and puts this toward investigating a practice-based problem. Students are encouraged to put to use the skills they have learned throughout their practice and education towards solving a clinical problem. The capstone project is not like a traditional scientific study where students test a hypothesis, but rather DNP students complete an in-depth analysis or test an intervention. For example, students may complete a project directed towards on improving practice outcomes, or developing a strategic plan for healthcare delivery.

Not all nursing schools refer to this project as a “capstone project”. Some universities, for example, may refer to the experience as a “DNP scholarly project”. While the title of the project may vary, the purpose of these assignments is similar with the overarching structure and goal comparable from program to program.

What types of capstone projects can students complete?

The options for DNP students when it comes to capstone projects are endless. Students may modify a practice system to make it more efficient or effective, analyze a local or national healthcare policy, implement technological change to improve patient outcomes, design a health education program, or perform a systematic review of a clinical guideline, to name a few.

In choosing a topic for your capstone project, it can be helpful to look at past students’ topics to get an idea for how to structure your research proposal. Some examples of past capstone projects for the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing include:

  • The College “Hookup” Culture and Health Issues By Mary Bachtel, MSN, BSN Purpose: To assess college students’ experiences and perceptions about hookups related to mental/ emotional and physical health issues.
  • Improvement of Family Centered Care Practices in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit By Marlee Crankshaw, MSN, HSM Purpose: To improve the delivery of Family Centered Care (FCC) in the NICU’s of Vanderbilt Medical Center by determining the nature of the current system and designing a program that would allow staff to fully comprehend  FCC and a revision of the NICU Family Visitation Policies.
  • Safe Medication Administration: A Simulation Workshop for Advanced Beginner Nurses By Elizabeth Pratt, MSN Purpose: To promote safe medication administration using simulation and to improve confidence in the advanced beginner acute care nurse when administering high risk medications.

What does the project require?

The first step in a DNP capstone project is selecting a topic by identifying an area of interest within a specified practice area. Students typically begin selecting a topic for their capstone project early in the first semester of the DNP program. Thinking about the topic for the capstone project is often integrated into the curriculum for DNP classes helping students prepare for the project.

Then, students begin doing background research on their topic evaluating these resources and further defining their research question. Essentially, this is a systematic review of pre-existing literature on your subject. Next, students design their project. For example, students may choose to perform an intervention with a particular patient population and must structure the best method for carrying out this intervention.

Once the project design is finalized, students implement the design, performing their intervention or analysis and evaluate the results. Towards the end of the project, DNP students must write a paper summarizing their research, design and project outcomes. Many schools encourage students to submit these papers to scholarly publications. Finally, students deliver a public oral presentation and defense of their research.

The DNP capstone project is a major undertaking but can be an interesting and rewarding way to further your education and explore your interests. Will you take on the challenge?


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