Since the early 1900s, community health nurses have been working to improve population health in the United States, managing and providing care across entire groups, identifying and examining the impact of diseases on societies, and promoting wellness across a broad range of settings.
Community health nurses, sometimes called public health nurses, are registered nurses (RNs) who are trained to work in public health settings such as county or state health departments, schools, jails, and businesses. Because of their roles in the community as caregivers, they often form close bonds within the communities they serve and form lasting relationships. They become area experts on health and wellness.
On any given day, community nurses can be found running wellness clinics, coordinating emergency preparedness for disaster relief, or treating injuries and illnesses.
Community nursing integrates evidence-based research with community health needs to provide care based on science and evidence. They must determine the cultural and socioeconomic needs of the community and adjust care as needed. In this role, RNs may be required to have a baccalaureate nursing education with studies in population-based health and community health nursing. RN to BSN programs allow nurses to study the theory and research behind public health practices and apply them to everyday practice.
“They are educated to see each person for whom they care in the context of his or her life—all the factors that impact that person’s life and well-being,” the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest healthcare philanthropic organization, said in a call to action for improved public health. “Indeed, nurses have a responsibility and an obligation—by virtue of their education—to promote population health no matter where and how they practice.”
Working as a community nurse is unlike any other nursing position. By helping whole communities, community nurses act as educators, disease and injury prevention specialists, research scientists, community advocates, emergency preparedness experts, public health liaison, and healthcare professionals. In more detail, the roles of public health nurses are:
Community health nurses focus on long- and short-term care for disease prevention. Their work includes averting or controlling the spread of the flu and other communicable diseases. They work with patients to support diabetes self-management and improve diabetes control. They also work with mothers of newborns to reduce the rate of infant mortality and in schools to identify gaps in services.
As educators, community health nurses focus on presenting materials in a clear and understandable format. They provide information to individuals, families, and communities that create a framework for healthy living and healthy choices. In schools they may teach sex education and HIV education classes. In the public, they hold classes and seminars on diabetes management. Overall, they focus on community health education as a step to preventive healthcare.
Community health nurses use evidence to implement policy changes and quality-based practices. They lead collaborative efforts to produce successful health outcomes and provide critical medical and social services in communities.
As researchers, community health nurses collect and use evidence to execute positive changes for better health. Research is used to validate funding for public health programs, reduce inequalities in healthcare, and increase access to services.
Public health nurses advocate on the local, state, and federal level to provide better access to healthcare, protect funding for public health programs, and reduce or eliminate health disparities. They help families arrange assistance through social services programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides healthcare and nutritional services for low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children under age 5.
Community nurses cross cultural, language, and literacy boundaries to shape the health and well-being of children and adults. They provide prenatal care and education for expectant mothers, including information about maternal nutrition, referrals for childbirth classes, and postpartum assistance. They also provide resources for parents to understand proper childhood development and discipline techniques.
In addition, community nurses play other varied roles, said Virginia Crandall, Senior Community Health Nursing Director for the Florida Department of Health in Hernando County. She said working as a public health nurse provides an opportunity to use skills not used in a hospital setting.
“Whether it is Ebola, Zika, budget challenges, hurricanes, clinic operations, dog bites, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases or HIV, there is always a new challenge and a new opportunity to make a positive difference,” she said.
Healthcare experts say public health has made great strides in the past decades, allowing people to live longer and healthier lives. The smoking rate is down and more people have health insurance. Health reform efforts have improved the quality of healthcare and slowed the growth rate of medical costs, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.
Even with that, however, the United States falls short of providing equitable access to healthcare, the CDC said. Racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic disparities continue in healthcare, the federal agency said. A vital component to change is local communities taking leading roles in public health and continued support by community health nurses.
The Association of Public Health Nurses (APHN) said partnerships between public health nurses, communities, populations, and organizations are essential to the future of public health. The association said public health nurses could bridge the gaps between siloed clinical health and public health, ensuring optimal well-being for communities and populations.
“Public health nursing remain the largest discipline in the public health field, consistently providing leadership in an unsettled health system environment,” the association said in a position paper titled “The Public Health Nurse: Necessary Partner for the Future of Healthy Communities.”
“As public health nurses continue to move beyond traditional public health settings and integrate their practice with community systems, their value and strength will continue to evolve as well.”
Students enrolled in Duquesne University’s online RN-BSN program have an opportunity to engage in classroom and clinical community health nursing education through coursework that allows registered nurses to earn Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees. The six-credit Population Based Health and Community Health Nursing course provides an opportunity for learning through a hands-on approach.
The university’s 100 percent online RN-BSN program provides a flexible setting so RNs can continue their home responsibilities while earning an advanced degree. Academic advisors and faculty mentors work cooperatively with students to enable success. For more information, visit DU’s online RN-BSN program website.