What Is Community Health Nursing and Why Is It Important?

People often view healthcare from a personal, individual perspective. They associate hospitals or clinics with a place to receive care and home as a space not related to health. But, there's a greater conversation to be had when looking more holistically at an entire community's health — and how cultural and environmental factors affect people's well-being.

That's where community health nurses play an integral role.

What Roles Do Community Health Nurses Fulfill?

A key focus of community health nursing is prevention via education. Community health nurses perform outreach in several ways through many mediums.

For example, they may operate within a COVID-19 vaccine clinic, providing essential information about both the virus and the vaccines. In addition, nurses might distribute sex education materials and even free prophylactics to reduce risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. Or, they might set up free blood pressure screenings at a local shopping mall.

It's also common for community health nurses to work closely with mothers to ensure their children are getting proper nutrition, regular screenings and CDC-recommended scheduled vaccinations. In this way, nurses are working to "set the stage" for lifelong healthy habits.

Bilingual or multilingual community health nurses serve a vital role in diverse communities, especially if those populations are typically underserved due to language barriers. This is most recently a critical need in certain areas around the U.S. where the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting communities hardest. Community health nurses have been deployed to educate various populations about how to take proper precautions against the virus and thus help slow the spread.

Community Health Nurses as First Responders

COVID-19 became a focal point for many community health nurses during 2020. While the pandemic highlighted many gaps and weaknesses of the U.S. healthcare system, community nurses are well trained and equipped to handle many other infectious diseases and dangers like environmental toxins, violence, accidents, injuries and even terrorism disasters.

Spurred by the anthrax attacks of 2001, which occurred in the wake of 9/11, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act of 2002 added a new dimension to the role of public health professionals. American Journal of Nursing (AJN) contributor Phyllis Meadows, PhD, RN describes the shift as "catapulting community health nursing to the center of emergency response plans" designed to address biochemical threats.

"Community health nurses, especially those in public health settings, are now considered first responders — a role that traditionally belonged to law enforcement and emergency response professionals," she explains. "In the event of a public health threat, community health nurses will organize and administer immediate care."

A Call for Research and Advocacy

With prevention a top priority, community health nurses are often tasked with performing in-depth research on the communities in which they serve. Research might be focused on addressing an already-present need such as food insecurity or identifying potential risks within the community, like a spike in teen pregnancy rates or increased incidences of violence.

Armed with this knowledge, community health nurses can then devise programs to combat health-related issues and really optimize their role as advocates. These nurses truly do have "boots on the ground" in such scenarios.

Community Health Environments

While some community health nurses occasionally perform duties in a hospital environment, they most often work in multiple settings outside the hospital, such as:

  • health fairs
  • community health clinics
  • shelters for those experiencing homelessness
  • churches
  • schools (K-12 schools and universities)

Community health nurses also can travel to other communities throughout the local, state or national landscape. If nurses have successfully revolutionized communities, they may be in high demand and asked to bring their expertise to other in-need populations.

Love of Nursing and Community

If you're looking for a way to combine a love for nursing with love for your community, there's no better track than community health nursing. To best prepare for a career in community health, registered nurses are encouraged to consider earning their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.

Specific courses, such as those included in the RN to BSN online program at the University of New Mexico (UNM), provide foundational elements designed to optimize knowledge in community health nursing. The Nursing in the Community course is described as incorporating frameworks of "community assessment, epidemiologic, environmental, change, political action, and case-management to guide ethical, culturally competent, evidence-based nursing care delivery to individuals, families, and populations in community settings."

Learn more about UNM's online RN to BSN program.

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