Nursing’s New Role: Public Health Information Advocate

February 07, 2022 by Alec Stone MA, MPA, ONS Public Affairs Director

For better or for worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of life as we know it. As the virus evolves, so do we—from individuals to health systems, the country, public health policies, and more.

Nurses’ stories are especially powerful because they are informative, inspirational, and healing. The reality nurses face today makes storytelling even more important to the profession and the future of nursing.

American Nurses Association

Nurses are not immune to that evolution, either. Once working in almost isolated subspecialties, every nurse has added public health nursing to their role. Understanding how a nurse’s responsibility for health information awareness and education in the context of COVID-19 can serve as a catalyst for applying the role’s transformation to future opportunities beyond the pandemic.

All Nurses Are Educators

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, cautioned Americans about their health education sources in his first report of 2021, Confronting Health Misinformation. “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts,” he wrote.

Through reports like Murthy’s, U.S. surgeons general point to trusted experts to educate the public about guidelines during a health crisis. As the most trusted profession, no experts are better positioned to guide Americans than nurses.

A leading voice in the public health community, the American Nurses Association is taking an aggressive stance to educate the public during the pandemic. “We’re in this together, but we all need to do our part for our personal protection and the protection of those around us. Simple actions will make a tremendous difference in the number of cases and deaths resulting from COVID-19.”

Serving as scientists, navigators, educators, providers, and clinicians, nurses speak truth with authority and are making a difference in how Americans think and act during the pandemic.

Public Health Experts Guide Behavior

Despite an ever-increasing political gap in the United States, public health professionals are regarded as above partisanship. As the virus mutates, scientists and researchers scramble to understand its implications to update the nation’s protocols. But that message is only effective once the people who are affected hear about it. Public health professionals like nurses—all nurses, even those in subspecialties like oncology—have a responsibility to communicate accurate information to their community as well as their patients.

For example: “Vaccines have proven to be the best defense available against COVID-19. However, there are certain immune compromised individuals who may not mount an adequate immune response to COVID-19 vaccination,” Patrizia Cavazzoni, MD, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said.

Cavazzoni’s statement has two implications for nurse advocacy: reinforcing the need to vaccinate the entire community and communicating a caveat about immunocompromised status that may affect many of the patients that ONS members care for every day.

And They Communicate the Current Evidence

The corresponding element to information is action. People are more likely to heed a message that demonstrates progression toward a target.

In December 2021, President Biden announced a continuous program with the private sector to develop vaccines and boosters—all within the rigorous safety review process—and regularly monitor and adjust as required for successive virus variants.

The significant investments in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and FDA from the various unprecedented COVID-19 legislative packages are a prime example of success. “With Omicron now on so many people’s minds, public health officials and virologists around the world are laser focused on tracking its spread and using every possible means to determine the effectiveness of our COVID-19 vaccines against it. Ultimately, the answer will depend on what happens in the real world. But it will also help to have a ready laboratory means for gauging how well a vaccine works, without having to wait many months for the results in the field,” NIH Director Francis Collins blogged.

Nurses have a significant role in communicating those and future evidence-based global efforts and sharing the latest scientific research with full transparency.

ONS Perspective

One of nursing’s key roles has always been patient education, and the emerging responsibility for public health advocacy only builds on that. During the pandemic, ONS and the entire professional nursing community is working directly with oncology nurses to educate the public with current and accurate information about the changing health-related protocols, recommendations, and behaviors—particularly those that directly affect their patient population.

After the pandemic, nursing’s new role and the educational approaches learned today will transition to communicating that health information on a more general level—living healthier lifestyles, understanding social determinants of health, overcoming health-related barriers, and adhering to behaviors like cancer prevention and screening strategies. Nursing knowledge and expertise will guide the public, which has held the profession in their highest trust for two decades.

Throughout history, nurses have monitored, journaled, evaluated, and reported on patient-centered health information. Since the Lady With the Lamp guided a burgeoning field, the role of the nurse in advocacy, awareness, and support for public health has never been a more necessary component of care.


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