Nursing Leadership and Population Health

According to annual Gallup surveys, nursing has been the most trusted profession in America for the past 19 years. Known for their honesty and high ethical standards, nurses have worked hard to gain public trust, and they are increasingly asked to help modernize the nation’s approach to population health.

This renewed urgency for public health reform comes amid a global pandemic and many other challenges still looming, like improving primary and preventive care access and managing a growing and diverse patient population with high levels of chronic illness. For decades, nurses have formed the backbone of public health initiatives. Their cumulative knowledge should be mobilized to guide new policies, improve patient engagement, and enhance the health of individuals and communities.

Why Should Nurses Spearhead Population Health Initiatives?

Looking to nurses to instigate much-needed societal change isn’t new. Nursing was founded, in large part, by pioneering individuals like Florence Nightingale who sought to improve the health of their communities. With millions of nurses across every sector of the healthcare system, from bedside care and education to research and administration, nurses who understand population health and its positive impacts have much to offer.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) encourages “nurses to perform to the full extent of their expertise, for the benefit of public health.” Nurses who wish to delve further into community health leadership and the epidemiology, interventions, and policies that can guide care will benefit from a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a focus in public and population health.

A 2017 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), titled “Catalysts for Change: Harnessing the Power of Nurses to Build Population Health in the 21st Century,” reiterated the often untapped power and potential of nurses, urging them to develop robust skill sets and help craft solutions to the most pressing public health concerns.

“Nurses provide services in homes, places of worship, factories and offices, schools, libraries, corrections facilities, and senior centers, as well as in nearly every clinical setting in the healthcare system,” says the report. “They are well-positioned to identify issues affecting the health and well-being of individuals, discern patterns across patient populations, link patients with community resources, and develop broad-based interventions.”

What Nursing Skills Are Important in Public Health?

Nurses seeking to excel in population health must be ready to lead and operate at the top of their scope of practice. As noted in the RWJF report, “the key to implementing a population-focused vision of the future is strong nursing leadership, which will drive the monumental culture change required to improve health and reduce costs in our country.”

By deepening their knowledge of population health principles, usually through a combination of continuing education and hands-on experiences, nurses will be prepared to assume advanced roles within organizations and communities, increasing their sphere of influence and ability to revolutionize care.

In addition, nurses working in public health require data collection and analytics skills and the development of these four key competencies:

  1. A holistic care approach that considers all aspects of the patient’s background, including physical, mental, social, and spiritual qualities
  2. The ability to coordinate care across providers and facilities
  3. A willingness to collaborate with colleagues and community leaders
  4. A passion for advocacy, both on behalf of individuals and the community

The COVID-19 pandemic has reignited interest in strengthening the nation’s healthcare system, with much of the focus on reducing disparities, improving the management of chronic disease, and boosting access to primary and preventive care. With a background rooted in public health, nurses are poised to lead such initiatives and enhance the well-being of all.

Learn more about Worcester State University’s online MSN Public & Population Health program.


American Nurses Association: Public Health Nursing

Gallup: U.S. Ethics Ratings Rise for Medical Workers and Teachers

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Catalysts for Change: Harnessing the Power of Nurses to Build Population Health in the 21st Century

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