The U.S. Centers for Disease Control defines population health as "opportunities for health care systems, agencies, and organizations to work together in order to improve the outcomes of the communities they serve." Population health is not the same as public health, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Public health nursing, or community health nursing, focuses on health issues that affect the whole community instead of the one-on-one care of a single patient. The term "community" may include the workplace, small towns, universities, large cities, and urban or rural areas.
What Is a Public Health Nurse or Community Health Nurse?
A public health nurse uses all phases of the nursing process: assessment, planning, implementation, coordination, delivery and evaluation to serve his or her assigned community. This includes identifying and serving those in need — whether they are children, elderly, homeless, veterans, employees, incarcerated or a church congregation. Additionally, public health nurses advocate for their community and provide education about illness and disease prevention, safe health practices, nutrition, and wellness. They have a good understanding of health disparity and social determinants of health.
This role incorporates a wide variety of services — providing individuals, families, groups or communities with a wide range of healthcare needs, including disease prevention and optimal wellness. For example, they may provide preventive care through blood pressure screenings or vaccinations, or through education classes or health fairs. By correcting poor health practices and promoting a safe home and work environment, they help patients reduce risk factors and frequent visits to healthcare facilities.
What Is the Nurse's Role in Community Health?
The nurse's role in population care is not limited to a specific job as a public health nurse. The Nurse Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice (NACNEP) includes a call to action for all nurses to focus on population health. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) preparation includes population health content to bridge clinical care with issues such as community health assessment, health equity, and special populations or the underserved.
In their everyday practice, nurses include measures to improve population health, often one patient at a time. For example, nurses teach individual patients about tobacco cessation and prevention. With population health, nurses expand that education to a larger community such as through a health fair or middle school health class.
All nurses can lobby their government officials to set up or improve a health facility that offers free or affordable healthcare to underserved and low-income populations. They may also lend their voices on matters that are important to them. For example, oncology nurses may contact government about legislature that impacts cancer care services.
A large part of serving a community is identifying and promoting health resources, related services or non-clinical partnerships to improve the health of that community. Nurses may be responsible for coordinating and monitoring a comprehensive case management service plan that includes community resources. Nurse leaders often collaborate with community leaders and key stakeholders to address community health needs and provide program-specific and public health information.
How Can Nurses Help Different Communities?
The possibilities for a job as a community health nurse are endless. Positions include both traditional organizations (hospitals, clinics and assisted living facilities) and non-traditional settings (businesses, correctional facilities, public health departments, school districts or college campuses). For more tech-savvy nurses, telehealth nursing opportunities are expanding, with positions at call centers, insurance providers, or specific medical practices or healthcare facilities.
Please note that all nurses, regardless of their role, practice some form of population health. You interact with people from diverse backgrounds, with different education levels, ethnic backgrounds or differing primary languages. Depending on your position, you may focus on a specific population, such those in a veteran facility, state facility or retirement community. Or you may serve as a volunteer. One example is faith community nursing, also called parish nursing, where nurses partner with a congregation to provide health-related services to meet the specific needs of their members or those in their community.
How Can Nurses Support Health Promotion?
The World Health Organization defines health promotion as "the process of enabling people to increase their control over and improve their health." The nurses' role in health promotion includes a wide spectrum of possibilities — it could start informally with yourself, your family, friends, or neighbors. Perhaps you educate them about appropriate cancer screening guidelines or guide them to diet recommendations to prevent diabetes or heart disease. Maybe you decide to volunteer at work or receive clinical ladder credit for manning your employer's booth at a women's health fair. You may even decide to volunteer with disaster relief or humanitarian efforts abroad. With the knowledge and skills about cultural, social, and economic forces as well as public health principles and practice, a job in public health nursing might be right for you.
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