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Managing Your Career
Why Public Health Nursing May Be for You
It takes “superstars” to make a difference.

Surf the networks at primetime. Bet you won’t find many—if any—dramas about public health professionals, implementing health programs at the grassroots level.

But the job has big payoffs, according to Julia Muennich Cowell, PhD, RNC, FAAN, and Professor and Chair of Mental Health Nursing at Rush University in Chicago, IL.

To recognize the pluck and passion of public health nurses, the VNA Foundation developed the Super Star in Community Health Nursing Award, of which Cowell is a panel member.

Recently we spoke with Cowell about the unique opportunities in public health nursing and why so many public health nurses are truly superstars:

What are some unique benefits of community/public health nursing?

You experience much more independence than you would in a robust acute care setting. There’s also a lot of freedom and opportunities to be creative. With that comes a lot of responsibility.

More creativity and independence, really?

Typically, when you consider community and public health nursing, the nurses are often the sole healthcare provider in a community agency. One of the Superstar finalists this past year was the only nurse at the American Indian Center, where she developed and implemented programming and health promotion around diets and physical activity. Another finalist was a school nurse who created an organization for high school students to be introduced to health professions. Part of the program included a trip to the state’s capital where the legislature was going to talk about funding school-based health centers.

Did you experience that independence as a public health nurse?

I began as a staff nurse in public health nursing in Cincinnati, Oh, and we provided health services to families in the neighborhood: mothers with new babies, school-aged children, and the elderly. I remember in the first year of my practice, I discovered a child was being abused in her family. Part of my role was to report that, of course, to the protective services. I then had the opportunity to follow that through the court proceedings and placement into a foster home where health services were coordinated.

Do public health nurses have a greater opportunity to develop relationships with patients?

Absolutely. That’s one of the big differences from hospitals, especially with stays shortening (now patients are often discharged within 24-36 hours). Nurses often do not get to see patients recover from an illness or really have an understanding of what kind of information they might need to take care of themselves at home.

Community health nurses have long-standing relationships with their families.

Why is there an award to honor community, public health nurses?

Because there’s a huge nursing shortage, and the shortage in the community is even larger than in hospitals. This is partly due to the fact that the pay in community health jobs is not as high. I also think nursing students are seduced by the media’s representation of high-tech, fast-paced nursing in hospitals. Think about it: The television shows all focus on acute hospital scenarios, with a team of peers having a blast.

But it takes a special person to be a public health nurse—one who is committed to health promotion, health maintenance, and continuity of care. It is a calling.

What are the traits of a public health nurse “superstar”?

We look for excellence in nursing care, specifically nurses who are creative, innovative, patient, sensitive to patient and population needs, insightful about tailoring nursing interventions, and are client advocates.

Honestly, to be a client advocate, it often means that you exceed the call of duty. Work odd hours. Take on a host of jobs. You have to be very flexible.

Do these high demands lead to discouragement?

Many nurses in community and public health nursing are there because it is a vocation as well as a profession. They become very skilled in facing adversity, whether it’s in the work place or with a patient population. As professionals, they often create solutions that take care of whatever the problem is that they’re facing.

To nominate a nurse for the 2007 VNA Foundation Nurse Super Star in Community Nursing, click here:

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