IACN: Strengthening Nurse Presence in Public Health

Despite the fact that over 500,000 lives have been lost to the coronavirus, the United States is seemingly turning a corner. New infections and deaths are down across the nation and the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine appears to be going smoothly in many states. 

While many different groups were responsible for the creation and implementation of the vaccine, those involved with public health are, in many places, to thank for the rollout. In this piece, IACN will explore some aspects of public health and provide suggestions for how nurses can get involved. 

What is Public Health? 

According to the American Public Health Association, public health “promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play. While a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. We also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors.” The APHA goes on to provide examples of those who work in public health, including first responders, nutritionists, and public health nurses. 

Public health is a strength of healthcare in the United States for a variety of reasons. 

“Nurses in the United States are trusted,” said member Tina Decker, Chair of the Department of Nursing at Trinity Christian College. “The Gallup poll ranks nursing as the #1 most trusted profession for the 19th consecutive year.”

“Public health departments in every county are a necessity,” said Terri E. Weaver, Dean and Professor at University of Illinois Chicago. “They provide not only community outreach, but also programmatic initiatives that improve health locally.”

Nursing Demand in Public Health

According to the website Healthcare Management Degree Guide, “Public health nurses comprise the largest professional segment of the workplace in public health and are involved in the prevention, education, advocacy, activism, assessment, and evaluation of Public Health.” 

Despite this, there is a demand for public health nurses in low income, rural, and underserved areas. Patricia Eathington, DNP, RN Associate Professor at Western Illinois University explains, “The biggest weakness in public health is manpower. There are not enough qualified people in public health and they don’t get paid enough.”

While there are many things that could be done to draw nurses to public health, including promoting public health to future nurses, Dr. Weaver has another idea. 

“Legislation should be passed to enable nurses to practice at the top of their license that would promote more to be engaged in public health,” Weaver says. 

This legislation would include full practice authority legislation which effectively allows nurses with advanced degrees to set up their own clinics, including public health clinics. The state of Illinois recently implemented a full practice authority law for Family Nurse Practitioners. 

The Way Forward for Public Health Nursing

“What we know is that healthcare is changing–fast,” explains Judy Neubrander, Dean of Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing. “Someone is going to drive that change. At MCN, we believe nurses are uniquely positioned and provide critical insight into patient care. We need more nurse leaders; that is why leadership is woven throughout the curriculum of each of MCN’s nursing programs. We want our students prepared to step out into the workforce prepared to deliver excellent care, and also to come to the decision making table, use their voices, share their perspectives, and help drive change.”

Decker agrees. “There is a lack of nursing voices and input at the forefront of planning and decision making. We need more nurses in leadership roles and in decision making positions. When we leverage nurses for their expertise, it helps all of us.”

The American Nurses Association – Illinois has long advocated for nursing representation in leadership. Most recently, ANA-Illinois lobbied for increased representation of nurses in conversations regarding healthcare staffing, arguing that when nurses are at the decision making table, the standard of care for patients improves. 

When thinking about the way forward, Weaver also points to the importance of communication. 

“We need to fix the disconnect between the state public health department and local public health agencies. The lack of communication between national public health agencies and state and local agencies also contributes to challenges,” says Weaver. The Illinois Association of Colleges of Nursing strongly supports the involvement of nurses in public health. If you have ideas on how to get nurses further involved in public health, we’d like to hear from you! You can contact us here.