Public Health Policy: Empowering Students

While there are many facets to being a nurse — and learning how to be a nurse — one that is particularly top of mind today is public health advocacy. The World Health Organization defines advocacy as “a combination of individual and social actions designed to gain political commitment, policy support, social acceptance and systems support for a particular health goal or programme.” Dr. Sandie Soldwisch, President of Saint Anthony College of Nursing, adds that advocacy is “providing support for the benefit of the common good using evidenced based research as one’s guide.” Below, the Illinois Association of Colleges of Nursing reflects on public health advocacy and how it is taught in nursing programs. 

Public Health Advocacy in Nursing 

Despite the lack of visibility of the role of advocacy in nursing, it is a skill that is both taught and practiced. Dr. Judy Neubrander, Dean of Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing, explains, “Nurses are on the front lines of public health, not only here in the United States, but globally. Often, nurses must act as detective, caregiver, and educator–identifying the problem, administering care, and then educating the patients. Because nurses have such a unique understanding of public health, it is critical they use their voices, not only to advocate for and educate patients, but also to drive the policy that shapes the healthcare system at large.”

Dr. Tina Decker, Chair of Nursing at Trinity Christian College explains, “Advocacy is covered in multiple spots of our curriculum. It starts in sophomore year when students conduct a health fair for the college. Then progresses to a Community Health class where students do a variety of clinical activities in the community. They carry this learning into their ‘Leadership in Nursing’ course, where students participate in advocacy through participating in the legislative process.” 

Teaching Advocacy Through Experiential Learning 

Although advocacy is taught in nursing programs across the country, some have argued that what is taught is not enough. In the article “Empowering Students and Influencing Policy Change Through Experiential Public Health Advocacy Education,” the authors advocate for the use of  experiential learning in teaching nursing advocacy. Experiential learning uses real life experiences to teach certain concepts. 

Many IACN members’ curriculum utilizes experiential learning with health advocacy included. For example, Dr. Judy Shackelford, Dean of Academic Affairs at St. John’s College, said that in St. John’s program, “Students put on a health fair for peers at the college, based on current health needs. We also have students put on a health fair for vulnerable communities, participate in heart health screenings at local health fairs, and do teaching projects at local elementary schools.”

St. John’s also has a strong example of teaching advocacy through Student Nurses Lobby Day. Judy stated, “Student Nurses Lobby Day is an annual event where public health and experiential learning are paired. Students discuss public health issues in the political realm and address talking points in regards to advocacy. On Lobby Day, students meet with local legislators to discuss these talking points to further inform decision-making and hopefully shape policy.”

Dr. Soldwisch’s curriculum has and continues to utilize experiential learning. “We do have our students involved in advocacy. Nursing students work in the jails and Illinois Department of Corrections.  Advocacy Day is another strength in our curriculum. It is experiential as it provides greater understanding of the legislative process.”

Importance of Advocacy

Regardless of how it is taught — whether it’s through experiential learning, a single course, or sprinkled throughout the curriculum —  public health advocacy is an important aspect of being a nurse. Dr. Soldwisch sums it up:

“The first line of defense in healthcare should be prevention. The health disparities that exist in the United States today draw attention to significant challenges; we must work to shift healthcare to better models, including prevention. Nurses need to have the knowledge of how to look at health problems in a holistic manner, not just terms of treatment. Advocacy is essential as part of a holistic approach to care.”