When one thinks of a nurse, the first image that often comes to mind is a picture of an attentive caregiver appearing at your bedside in your time of greatest need. A nurse doles out pills, gives you an injection or gently changes your dressing. All well and good; but, what about the public health RNs–the “forgotten nurses,” as I like to call them? Aren’t they worthy of recognition?
May 6-May 12, was National Nurses Week, a yearly occasion that not only commemorates Florence Nightingale, the founder of evidence-based nursing but it’s also a time to take stock to see how far nursing has come into the public’s awareness as a worthy and valuable profession.
There are all kinds of nurses who perform a wide variety of jobs. While the majority of nurses working in hospitals there are research RNs, administrators, educators, and infection control nurses, just to name a few. As for public health nurses, they give direct care working in the trenches: caring for the patients in the battlefields of our neighborhoods and as first responders during disaster or enemy attack.
Since its beginnings, community health efforts have significantly improved our lives by promoting sanitation and the chlorination of water supplies. In 1893, under the leadership of Lillian Wald, public health nursing began to play a vital role in combating communicable diseases. Today these nurses fight illnesses in every way, shape and form, from the immediate contacts of a patient with tuberculosis to tracking down the partners of patients carrying a sexually transmitted disease. I don’t know of any practice more hands-on than these direct care nurses who target prevention and cure of not only microbes, but of the most insidious disease of all: ignorance.
Public health nursing has always responded to the priority health needs of society by serving individuals, families, or entire populations. Take Brenda Gray RN, PHN, BSN: Her job is to go throughout Ventura County, California and assess high risk families for substance abuse and domestic violence along with child abuse and neglect. When she asked a patient to show her where a newborn infant slept in the house, the woman lead her out to the backyard, past the chickens, to a shed made of sheet metal with holes and cracks in the walls. The woman pointed to a dirty mattress on the floor, indicating that was where her entire family slept–mom, dad, toddler and newborn.
In such a case, Nurse Gray educates the patient, showing her how to find better housing and where to obtain family planning and contraception services. She motivates families to achieve better health by demonstrating cleanliness and encourages them to develop follow-up care for immunizations and proper nutrition for the children. Nurse Gray, like many other public health nurses, focuses families towards services and programs that combat teen pregnancy, environmental hazards, chronic diseases, HIV/AIDS, and many others challenges, thus helping them to achieve better outcomes. This effort in turn brings hope for an end to the cycle of ignorance and poverty that deteriorates our society.
Our public health nurses have helped make the U.S. a modern and compassionate society that honors and protects the poor and underserved. In recent years it has also become the safety net for our communities against bio-terrorism, bomb threats and natural disasters. State and county public health nurses are carefully prepared to be first-responders in the midst of such catastrophes. More and more these nurses are required to carry “GO” bags that can be grabbed at a moment’s notice, so they can assist the public with decontamination, quarantine and immunization services.
President Obama recognizes that nursing comprises the largest single workforce in our healthcare system. Therefore, nurses, especially public and community health professionals, have significant opportunities for creating an environment in which healthcare can be made more affordable and accessible. This is especially true with home visits in the community that focus on helping groups with specific needs to achieve optimal health promotion and disease prevention.
The outreach and dimension of good that public health nurses achieve is indispensable to recognizing a problem before it becomes an epidemic. Remember the emergency flu vaccine clinics that were set-up to stop the spread of the H1N1 virus? It is this group of nurses who are truly caregivers of a global network, enhancing and improving the quality of life for all of us. So, the next time you think of the incredible prevention and treatment of diseases we have in our country, diseases that run rampant in undeveloped nations, thank a public health nurse. Public health nurses advocate not just for the patient, but for the whole neighborhood.