DNP Capstone Project
A Guide to Developing and Defending Your Capstone Project

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The Doctor of Nursing Practice DNP project represents the culmination of your doctoral studies and an opportunity for you to translate your acquired knowledge into practice. It is also the epitome of the practice-focused DNP and an essential part of the integrative practice experience. Preparing your DNP project is an exciting time, as it allows you to lay the groundwork for future scholarship while at the same time giving you a chance to make a potentially meaningful contribution to improving nursing practice and patient outcomes.

In a whitepaper published in August 2015 entitled The Doctor of Nursing Practice: Current Issues and Clarifying Recommendations, the AACN recommended that the DNP Project be referred to simply as the “DNP Project” as a way to distinguish it from final projects in other types of graduate programs. While the term DNP Project is still commonly used, it’s worth noting that schools and professional organizations are in the process of uniformly adopting the term “DNP Project.”

Understanding the Basics of a DNP Project

You will likely begin considering your DNP project as soon as you enter your doctoral program and work toward its completion throughout your entire time in school. It’s not something you enter into lightly, so ensuring you are making the right decisions regarding your project will be an important part of your academic game plan.

Here’s what you’ll want to know:

What is a DNP Project?

A DNP project is the umbrella term used to describe a scholarly project with the express purpose of translating evidence into practice. You may also hear it referred to as a final or research DNP project. Your DNP project will reflect your specialization/area of interest, allowing you to delve deep and create a project focused on clinical practice. You will use your DNP project to demonstrate mastery of your advanced nursing specialty.

Fortunately, given the wide breadth of clinical nursing practice, your choices for a DNP project are nearly limitless.

For example, your DNP project may be a practice portfolio that explores the impact or outcomes of nursing practice, or it may be a practice change initiative represented by a program evaluation. It may be a quality improvement project, a consulting project, or the evaluation of a new practice model. It may be a practice topic dissemination, a systemic review, or a manuscript submitted for publication—and that’s just to start.

Although DNP projects may take on various forms, depending on your college/university’s requirements and your area of advanced nursing practice, all DNP projects have three things in common: They all include planning, implementation, and evaluation components.

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These components reflect the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s (AACN) DNP Essentials, which states that a DNP project should be able to successfully integrate some or all of the following into practice:

  • Focus on a change that impacts healthcare outcomes through either direct or indirect care
  • Have a systems (micro-, meso-, or macro-level) or population/aggregate focus
  • Implement the appropriate area of practice
  • Include a plan for sustainability (e.g., financial, systems, or political realities)
  • Include an evaluation of processes and/or outcomes

All projects should be designed so that processes/outcomes can be evaluated to guide practice and policy, and all should provide a foundation for future practice scholarship.

What is the Purpose of the DNP Project?

The goal of the DNP project is to inform the methods you will use to deliver care and educate others in your chosen population/community. You will use the DNP project to demonstrate your ability to lead and practice at the highest level of clinical nursing practice.

You will be asked to integrate a number of skills into your final project:

  • Expertise in reflective practice
  • Expertise in your area of interest
  • Independent practice inquiry (identifying existing problems/needs in nursing practice and/or healthcare systems)
  • The ability to evaluate, translate, and use research and evidence to improve health and quality of care outcomes
  • Organizational and systems leadership skills (developing, implementing, and evaluating interventions to improve outcomes for diverse populations and/or communities)
  • Knowledge of advanced healthcare policy, ethics, and law to develop a population-based program based on the best available and current evidence

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How to Develop a DNP Project Using an Evidence-Based Approach

Your DNP project will reflect your critical thinking skills and your ability to translate research into practice through problem identification, proposal development, implementation, and evaluation.

This is your time to shine, so don’t let the task of choosing a DNP project stress you out.

Using your area of clinical expertise as a springboard, develop your project using an evidence-based process:

  1. Formulate a well-developed question: Describe an innovation or clinical inquiry; identify a problem/issue
  2. Review the literature to identify evidence-based resources that answer your question: Apply the best evidence from literature
  3. Assess the validity of your resources using evidence: Collect data using standard and acceptable methods/tools
  4. Apply that evidence: Define outcomes to be measured upon implementation
  5. Implement outcomes and/or analyze results: Re-evaluate the application and identify areas for improvement

An example of how one DNP student followed this 5-step evidence-based process to develop a change project with the goal of increasing vaccination among healthcare personnel working in a college:

Step 1. A change project was initiated to increase influenza vaccination among healthcare personnel at a college

Step 2. Barriers to vaccination as well as factors that would help facilitate vaccination were identified using a pre-intervention questionnaire survey

Step 3. Interventions were planned based on the findings of the pre-intervention questionnaire survey

Step 4. Interventions were implemented

Step 5. The effectiveness of the interventions was assessed through a post-intervention survey

An example of how one DNP student followed this 5-step evidence-based process to develop a quality improvement project with the goal of reducing delays in treatment for patients with hand trauma:

Step 1. A quality improvement project was initiated to avoid delays in care for patients with hand trauma

Step 2. Over 2,000 consultations and notes from emergency room and urgent care departments were reviewed to assess adherence to guidelines for treating hand trauma

Step 3. Factors associated with a lack of adherence to treatment guidelines were identified

Step 4. Interventions were implemented

Step 5. Outcomes were assessed

Questions to Ask

One of the best ways to ensure your DNP project accomplishes your objectives is to ask yourself questions to make sure the project meets the required standards:

  • Does my project focus on individuals, communities, populations, and/or systems?
  • What problems/issues will my project address?
  • Is my DNP project grounded in clinical practice? Will it solve problems or directly inform my practice?
  • Will my project demonstrate mastery of DNP competencies achieved through my doctoral education?
  • Is my project supported by evidence provided through existing literature?
  • Does my project address outcomes associated with patients and healthcare?
  • Does my project provide a foundation for future scholarship in nursing?

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Stages and Components of a DNP Project

Although the design of your DNP project will be bound by the requirements of your DNP advisory committee, your final project will likely include the following components:

  • Abstract
  • Executive summary of the project
  • Introduction to the project
  • Description of the problem, how it is defined, and the clinical setting/environment and target environment
  • Data supporting the existence of the problem
  • Description of the creative approach to resolving the problem

The steps required to complete a DNP project will also vary somewhat from one program to the next. Generally speaking, DNP projects include the following stages:

  1. Student identifies a focus area for the DNP project.
  2. A Capstone Chairperson is selected based on mutual agreement of the student and faculty member and the clinical/scholarly interests and area of expertise of the faculty member. Note: Careful selection of a capstone chairperson is important, as the student and chairperson will develop a plan of study and work closely throughout the process.
  3. Student selects a Capstone Committee (usually includes at least three faculty members, one of whom is the Capstone Chairperson).
  4. Student earns eligibility to defend the capstone proposal (the proposal must be formally approved by all Committee members).
  5. Student works with Capstone Chairperson to develop the proposal, using the Committee in an advisory capacity, as needed.
  6. Student prepares and distributes the proposal defense to the Committee members.
  7. Student arranges a meeting of the Committee to discuss the proposal and to rule on its acceptability (Committee members ensure the proposal’s feasibility, clinical relevance, and quality.).
  8. Upon acceptance of the proposal, the student begins the process of implementing the DNP project (must receive administrative approval for all steps of the project).
  9. Student schedules the final defense of the DNP project upon completing the written project and upon getting approval from the Capstone Chairperson.
  10. Student distributes the final copy to the Committee members and prepares for the oral defense of the DNP project.
  11. Committee members critique the project, identify any changes or additional work to be done, and determine the outcome of the DNP project defense.

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DNP Project Ideas

Previous DNP projects are a great source of inspiration as you consider possible topics for your project. As you read through our inspiration list (sourced from recent university DNP project lists), consider how you can assimilate your doctoral-level knowledge into a DNP project that will allow you to demonstrate mastery of your interest/specialty/expertise and contribute to existing nursing knowledge:

  • Smoking Cessation Program for Patients with Coronary Artery Disease
  • Safe Foot Care in African American Type 2 Diabetes
  • A Community Based Approach to Promoting Nutritional Awareness and Improving Dietary Habits
  • Standardized Procedure for Assessment and Documentation of Pain in Long-Term Care
  • Evidence-Based Practice Update for Nurse Practitioners in Urgent Care
  • Strategies to Improve Patient Flow in an Urgent Care Facility
  • Empowering Community Health: A Faith-Based Approach
  • A Medication Safety Education Program to Reduce the Risk of Harm Caused by Medication Errors
  • Integrated Model of Dementia Care in a Nursing Home
  • An Evaluation of a School-Based Asthma Protocol
  • A Strategy to Reduce Distress Among Isolated Blood and Marrow Transplant Patients Post-Transplantation
  • An Evidence-Based Toolkit to Prevent Meningococcal Meningitis in College Students
  • An Evidence-Based Ovarian Cancer Education Toolkit: A Pilot Study
  • Consequences, Prevention, and Treatment of Childhood Overweight and Obesity
  • Prevalence of Symptoms in Multiple Sclerosis Patients
  • Obesity Prevention in Young Children
  • Predictors of the First-Year Nursing Student at Risk for Early Departure
  • The Predictive Value of Second Trimester Blood Pressures on the Development of Preeclampsia
  • Nursing Informatics Certification and Competencies: A Report on the Current State and Recommendations for the Future
  • Development of a Web-Based Health Information Database and Call Center
  • Translation of Autism Screening Research into Practice
  • Effectiveness of Chronic Disease Self-Management Programs for Mentally Ill Inmates with Diabetes
  • Optimizing Inpatient Heart Failure Education to Support Self-Care After Discharge
  • Strategic Plan for a Patient-Centered Medical Home Adaptation
  • Development of a Virtual Nursing Learning Lounge to Bridge the Practice Gap
  • Leadership, Advocacy, and Policy: Development of a Professional Organization for Doctors of Nursing Practice
  • Media Influence on Nutritional Choices in School-Age Children
  • Interdisciplinary Simulation Training for Evidence-Based Obstetric Crisis Management
  • A Web-Based Group Intervention for Patients with Recurrent or Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer
  • Evaluation of Pain Management Practices Among Laboring Women
  • A Multi-Method Approach to Evaluating Online Distance Learning in Nursing Education
  • Effects of Health Education on Nutrition and Physical Activity of School Children
  • Clinical-Academic Partnership Education and Socialization into the Nursing Role
  • Development of a Strategic Plan for a Dedicated Education Unit and Clinical Teaching Associate Role
  • A Strategic Plan for Promoting Health in the Hispanic/Latino Population through Internet-Based Social Networks
  • A Criterion-Based Job Description and Performance Assessment for the Advanced Practice Nurse
  • A Strategic Plan for the Development of an Inpatient Hospice Program
  • Deploying a Geriatric Nurse Practitioner in an Emergency Department to Improve Outcomes for Geriatric Patients
  • Implementing Evidence-Based Practice in an Acute-Care Hospital
  • A Strategic Plan for the Development of a Model of Care for HIV Co-Infected Diabetics in an Inner-City Clinic
  • Implementation of Routine HIV Testing for the Hospitalized Patient
  • Development of an Evidence-Based, In-Patient Alcohol Detoxification Guideline for Culturally Diverse Adults
  • Conducting a Randomized Household Survey in an Underserved Urban Community
  • Fall Prevention in the Medical Surgical Setting
  • A Comprehensive Systematic Review of the Influence of Transformational Leadership Style on Nursing Staff in Acute Care Hospitals

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