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Nurse Keith’s Corner: Public health’s PR problem

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By: Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

Does public health need a George Clooney?

Public health has always had a public relations problem. While innumerable nursing school graduates have pursued ICU, emergency nursing, trauma, and other areas of practice, only a particular brand of nurse has chosen to pursue a career in public health.

And who can blame anyone for going for the adrenaline, physical demands, and intensity of those other specialties? On television screens around the world, George Clooney and his acting colleagues were definitely not specialists in public health swooping in to save the day. Countless other TV shows have always tended to depict the high-drama shenanigans, careers, and personal lives of the denizens of American hospitals.

Working in a public health office just doesn’t make good television. A TV drama about a public health office is an unlikely draw for ratings and viewers, although a handful of movies have depicted scientists saving the day in the face of worldwide contagion. And it’s worth noting that scientists are the ones depicted in space suits going into infected areas to quell the outbreak, not public health nurses.

Let’s face it, saving lives through vaccinations, disease surveillance, community education, and outbreak response isn’t sexy. Public health nurses and their colleagues diligently do their work without fanfare, and with precious little acknowledgment of their important contributions that we frankly can’t live without.

The undeniable truth

An undeniable truth about public health is that its importance to our society can’t be overstated.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated very clearly that public health matters. From surveillance to the massive, coordinated boots-on-the-ground response, the public health infrastructure has been crucial since the emergence of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

The CDC Foundation defines public health like this: “Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. This work is achieved by promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and detecting, preventing and responding to infectious diseases. Overall, public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations. These populations can be as small as a local neighborhood, or as big as an entire country or region of the world.”

Public health may not have the adrenaline-soaked allure of the ED, ICU, or trauma unit, but there’s no question about its critical role in protecting the health of all Americans on a daily basis.

The other 40%

Acute care hospitals employ about 60% of the nursing workforce, where do the other 40% work? At times, some acute care nurses seem unaware that other nursing career paths exist. However, innumerable nurses work in schools, clinics, medical practices, urgent care centers, family planning facilities, and other areas of specialty practice, including public health.

The nursing shortage isn’t confined to hospitals, and the need likely exists today for nurses in most every area of practice, including public health. Innovative programs like Minnesota’s public health nursing residency is available for new graduates and seasoned nurses alike, and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing posts public health nursing opportunities in nearly every state.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its Healthy People 2030 initiative has its focus firmly on our public health infrastructure. Their website states: “A strong public health infrastructure includes a capable and qualified workforce, up-to-date data and information systems, and agencies that can assess and respond to public health needs. While a strong infrastructure depends on many organizations working together, public health departments play a central role in the nation’s public health system. Federal agencies rely on a solid public health infrastructure in state, tribal, local, and territorial jurisdictions.”

Nurses are needed as an integral part of a “capable and qualified workforce,” but where those new public health nurses will come from is anyone’s guess.

If Not Now, When?

The nursing shortage is an ongoing reality, and nurses are needed in every corner of the healthcare system. We can’t afford to focus only on hospital care. We must extend our gaze to include public health and other pivotal specialty areas in need of nurses to embrace them as a viable career path.

How do we attract nurses to public health? We could try any number of strategies:

  • Make public health a mandatory aspect of nursing education.
  • Ensure that adequate information on public health and public health nursing are part of the core NCLEX curriculum.
  • Create attractive new nurse residencies in public health that provide an on-ramp to well-paying jobs.
  • Provide adequate government funding for competitive public health nurse salaries and benefit packages in all 50 states.
  • Increase public awareness of the importance of public health.

When would it behoove us more to begin attracting more qualified, enthusiastic nurses to enter the specialty of public health nursing? I would venture a guess that before the next pandemic or public health emergency rears its ugly head would be a good time. And maybe a public service announcement by George Clooney wouldn’t hurt.

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, and author.

With two decades of nursing experience, Keith understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s podcast, The Nurse Keith Show, offers inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful lives and careers.

Keith’s message of savvy career management reaches nurses worldwide and he can be found on social media, as well as at NurseKeith.com.

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