The social determinants of health as defined by the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control represent a vast range of physical, environmental, economic, social, cultural, political, governmental and community conditions that have a significant impact on people’s health, well-being and quality of life. Numerous analyses have found that these conditions may be responsible for 70% to 80% of all health outcomes, making addressing the social determinants of health vital to improving overall community and population health and alleviating widespread health disparities. Public health nurses play a critical role in assessing and incorporating the social determinants of health into professional practice and patient care, in order to alleviate health inequities and achieve greater health and well-being at all levels of society.
Public health nurses and public health systems are uniquely positioned to identify social determinants of health among localized patient populations, and to communicate and collaborate on partnership programs with healthcare agencies, healthcare systems, governmental entities and other concerned stakeholders to take action on these factors affecting patients and communities. Public health nurses also act as “change agents” through vigorous public policy advocacy regarding mitigating the social determinants of health; these efforts are indispensible to enacting policies and carrying out comprehensive changes in healthcare systems to reverse the negative effects of health inequities worldwide.
Because the roles of public health nurses span a wide variety of practice settings, including acute care, post-acute care; palliative and hospice environments; homes; schools; public and private workplaces; governmental offices, and correctional facilities, public health nurses are ideally situated to observe, measure, report about, and take action on many of the social determinants of health. Some of the collaborative efforts developed by public health nurses to address the social determinants of health include developing screening tools, performing data analysis and forming multi-organization partnerships integrating healthcare systems, service referral networks, academic allies, governmental authorities, and community colleagues to address the issues directly affecting the health of local patient populations. Public health nurses serve as leaders, as role models and as healers, providing care and compassion for patients, families and society regardless of ethnicity, culture, creed, gender, economic statues, age or sexual orientation, thereby fostering an environment celebrating diversity, inclusion and social justice for all.
Public health nurses bring a substantially different and valuable perspective to healthcare systems, a vision that encompasses far more than just treating disease and trauma and extends into promoting wellness and healthy lifestyles. Public health nurses and public healthcare systems are actively developing programs to build healthier communities, establishing policies and events designed to foster early detection and treatment of chronic conditions, such as regular blood pressure and cancer screenings, as well as educational programs that highlight the importance of good nutrition, exercise and other healthy lifestyle behaviors. Nurses are integral to designing and implementing national and international public health policies that address the social determinants of health and mitigate widespread disparities in health and healthcare, thereby enhancing overall individual, community and population health.