Each year, during the first full week of April, we celebrate National Public Health Week. It’s a time to recognize the contributions of those professionals working to create healthier, stronger, and safer communities.

Their efforts have never been more important than during the past two years as our nation’s healthcare system faced its toughest challenge yet – the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout it all, the unsung hero has been the public health nurse.

America’s Longstanding History of Community Care

To appreciate the value of the public health nurse, you must first understand the critical role they play in population health. Their relevance dates back more than one hundred years. A 1921 study in the American Journal of Public Health reported on “The Value of the Public Health Nurse in Public Health and Welfare Administration.”

Community nursing can be traced to 1893 when nurses began providing home visits and health education to immigrant communities living in the Henry Street Settlement on New York City’s Lower East Side. Eventually, that practice became known as the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. It still exists to this day, providing public education and healthcare services to New York residents.

Public Health Nurses Serve as Community Sentinels

Public health nurses are the lifeblood of communities providing medical care, education, and advocacy. I like to think of them as a ‘bellwether’ because they are attuned to the issues, illnesses and concerns facing residents and can alert the healthcare system when additional resources are needed.

Their impact on healthcare has been part of our history of nursing and nursing education for years. For example, the American Journal of Men’s Health published a study from a public health nurse who noticed a high incidence of prostate cancer in her predominantly African American community. Based on her understanding of her community’s culture, she knew these patients would not come to urgent care or physician’s offices for education. Instead, she promoted education with the help of local barbershops and churches. The program was phenomenally successful, and the percentage of men actively seeking PSA tests and openly discussing this prominent men’s health issue increased thanks to her advocacy.

Community Nurses Coordinate Follow Up Care

Hospital discharge brings with it a new set of unique circumstances. Students may need schedule a surgery or set up follow up care at school, fill prescriptions, or secure medical equipment such as braces or crutches. Who will care for the student if they develop an infection and need to seek care?

These tasks impact not just the emergency room nurse, but also community nurses as well. In many cases, community nurses will be the healthcare professionals taking care of students once they return to campus. These campus nurses will need to use teamwork and collaboration to treat the student by coordinating with the treating facility and physician, assessing next steps using patient safety quality indicators to organize any follow up care. In some cases, the community nurse may need to schedule telehealth appointments with the referring physician for follow up.

I often say community nurses are the unsung heroes of our profession – their role providing care to students while educating them on the importance of healthy habits is paramount to a thriving campus population.

Community Nursing Laid the Foundation for Sentinel U®

We believe community nursing is so critical to the strength of a community’s healthcare system that it was impetus for creating Sentinel City, Sentinel U’s flagship product. We instinctively understood that if nurses can appreciate how the society impacts the care they deliver, we could effect change in patient outcomes. The entire premise of these award-winning immersive virtual simulation scenarios is based on community care nursing concepts and competencies.

In its latest iteration, Sentinel City v.5, Dr. Sabrina Williams is one of our most valued informants. The director of public health is integral to the fabric of Sentinel City as she provides oversight for all of the activities, programs, and organizations related to the safety and health of the local population including running the Better Health Clinic. By interacting with Dr. Williams, learners delve into nursing concepts such as infection control, disease data, immunization campaigns, disability services, and so much more.

Community nurses diagnose and treat their communities, delivering care at the macro level. As nurses explore Sentinel City’s virtual world, they learn how to conduct a “windshield survey.” This is an invaluable skill that trains nurses to identify trends and widespread issues beyond treating the patient in front of them.

As we slowly emerge from COVID, let’s recognize the community nurses who have (literally) served on the frontlines, advocating for proper health protocols, educating their constituents, and serving as the “eyes and ears” of our healthcare system. Their tireless efforts have been, and will continue to be, essential to the health and welfare of all communities.