- Nurses can play an integral role in improving population health, but healthcare stakeholders must first initiate changes in nursing education, practices, and policy to enhance population-focused leadership capabilities and data management skills, according to a study commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and conducted at Loma Linda University Health.
The researchers noted that there are currently more than 3 million nurses working in the US, making nurses the largest force within the healthcare industry. Nurses are also taught to consider health issues within a larger context that includes the social determinants of health, which allows them to identify and discern patterns across patient populations.
These factors make nurses ideal catalysts for improving population health.
“All nurses have a population health responsibility regardless of their education level or their work assignment,” the research team wrote. “A population-focused nurse will move beyond the individualistic, downstream approach, viewing individuals and families in the context of their environment, and assessing how their community affects them.”
However, in order for nurses to become population-focused, healthcare stakeholders must first address several key issues, including leadership development.
The researchers stated that strong nursing leadership is essential to the establishment of a population health-focused culture.
“Nurse leaders should be champion advocates for improving the health of their communities— utilizing a network of internal and external resources and relationships; participating in assessing community needs; and providing leadership and support for planning and implementing strategies,” the team said.
Nurse managers and leaders must support a culture of continuous learning, foster trust, and effectively manage changes in care delivery. These abilities will be especially important as population health nursing roles emerge in areas such as chronic disease management and care coordination.
To cultivate these leadership capabilities, schools and healthcare organizations will need to make changes to nurse education and practices.
“Academia and healthcare organizations should support and prepare nurses and students in population health knowledge, skills and perspectives, and ensure that they maintain a holistic nursing approach,” the researchers explained.
The team recommended that nursing schools incorporate population-focused concepts into the curricula for all nursing students, and help students understand the integral role they can play in promoting population health.
“Education should provide students with the skills they need to understand the impact of the community on patients’ health—and how they, as nurses, can influence change within their communities to improve health,” the research team stated.
Researchers also advised that academic institutions develop lifelong population-focused learning strategies for all nurse leaders and establish care coordination and chronic disease management programs.
In addition to strong leadership, population-focused nursing requires robust data management skills.
“Data fluency is a basic population health nursing competency required to make data-driven decisions and to translate research into practice,” the team wrote. “Essential in all health services is the ability to coordinate, collaborate and exchange critical information.”
Nurse informaticists are needed across all sectors of healthcare to help improve data collection capacity, identify at-risk individuals and communities, and monitor population health trends.
To improve nurses’ data management capabilities, the researchers suggested that all nurse practice settings promote increased data management and data-based decision-making regarding population needs and trends.
Additionally, the team recommended that the healthcare industry support and promote the development of a pipeline of population-focused nurse informaticists and data analysts. Such a pipeline could start with programs that prepare nurses for roles in population data analysis.
The researchers stated these education and practice changes will require the support of policymakers.
“The focus on improving the population’s health requires an adequately trained, diverse nursing workforce in all areas of the United States for all types and levels of nursing,” the team wrote. “Funding for education and training in these enhanced nursing roles is needed.”
The research team advised policymakers to give nurses the tools they need to achieve population health, and to advocate for funding of population-focused nursing education and research.
Ultimately, the researchers emphasized that population-focused education and practices will allow nurses to help transform the healthcare industry.
“As the largest and most trusted health care profession, nurses are essential to reversing the decline in health status and the increasing costs of health care,” the group concluded.
“This requires that nurses are prepared; that they are lifelong learners; that they are visionary; that they have the necessary tools, data, and resources; and that they possess critical communication and leadership skills.”