Public health nurses make a difference in their communities

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Public health nurses are critically important to public health efforts, but they face serious challenges, according to a new report by the University of Michigan Center of Excellence in Public Health Workforce and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Using data collected from state and local health departments and surveys, researchers found that the public health sector's efforts to recruit and retain nurses have been hurt by factors such as salaries, lack of education and training, and a lack of opportunities to move into leadership roles.

Despite these hurdles, the report found that public health nurses report high levels of job satisfaction and that they feel they are making a difference in their communities—factors that could bolster recruitment efforts.

“Capturing this data about public health nurses, who represent the largest professional sector of the public health workforce, gives us a clearer picture of the challenges before us,” said Pamela Russo, a senior program officer with the RWJF. “It should be a high priority to address gaps and take steps to strengthen the public health nursing workforce.”

Nurse and patientPhoto: Michael Campbell

“Public health nursing is not a job for everyone, but people who go into public health nursing want to serve; that’s why they take the job,” says Karen Pilecki (pictured left), a public health nurse who is a member of AFT Healthcare and the Baltimore County Federation of Public Health Nurses. Pilecki, who has been a public health nurse for 20 years, started her career with the county as an EMT, but the physical demands of the job prompted her to go back to school and get her degree in nursing.

Like the majority of public health nurses, Pilecki works in a clinic setting. Her facility, in Landsdowne, Md., offers family planning and related care.

One of the biggest challenges of working in public health is the inconsistency in funding, says Pilecki. “One year we’ll have something, and the next we don’t.” Nonetheless, public health nurses find a way to make do with the resources they do have.

“One of the most rewarding things about public health nursing is being able to connect people to the services and resources they need,” says Pilecki. “People will come to us for all kinds of things, and we will move heaven and earth to help. We find things under rocks for people, and it’s a good feeling to get people what they need. “

Pilecki notes that another great thing about public health nursing is being able to provide access to care. “We will see anyone whether they can pay or not, and that’s great—No one is turned away because they can’t pay for their healthcare.”

But sometimes it’s not medical care that people seek, Pilecki adds. They may need food, shelter or just someone to listen to them. “As a public health nurse, you are the answer to a person’s crisis, and even though it may not have anything to do with the clinical work, you try and track down resources to help. That’s what public health nurses do.”

—Adrienne Coles