Prioritizing population health education

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Deans and directors of nursing schools and programs at 20 colleges and universities across Washington recently developed a white paper agreeing to focus on population health in nursing education.

That list includes Shari L. Dworkin, dean of the  School of Nursing & Health Studies at the University of Washington Bothell, who observes that many of the recommendations in the paper are already in motion at the school because of the value it places on community engagement and social justice. “We are ahead of the curve, I think,” she said.

“Population health highlights that where people live, work and play shapes their health even more than the care they get in the health care system,” Dworkin said. “We are also focused on the social determinants of health and how multiple factors intersect to produce health — race, class, gender, sexuality and social institutions.” 

The concept of population health, which aims to improve the health of entire populations rather than individuals or small groups, is a growing movement nationally. Health policies, such as the Affordable Care Act, remain at the center of national debate, and health care is one of the fastest-growing occupations.

UW President Anna Mari Cauce has also identified population health to be an area of signature strength where the University can use its expertise to improve the health of communities in Washington and around the world.

The white paper, published by the Washington Center for Nursing, notes that the nation currently gets a poor return for its investment in health care services. The paper then calls for increased focus on population health concepts to prepare future nurses to provide the best care and to eliminate health disparities. Such concepts include systems-level thinking and shifting the emphasis from treatment of illness to promotion of wellness and to an emphasis on the social determinants of health.

Understanding how all these factors influence health is vital to reshaping health outcomes, Dworkin said, adding that the curriculum at UW Bothell has also changed to integrate an emphasis on population health competencies. These include coordination and patient-care transitions through the health care system as well as understanding health care in home and community settings.

Nurses are strategically placed to help patients navigate the complex systems of care and to integrate the care they receive into their daily lives, Dworkin said. An interdisciplinary faculty is critical in teaching nurses how to work better in teams that span nursing, medicine, social work, health education and other fields.

“Our school recognizes that we need to train nurses and health care professionals to work in teams across disciplines to produce solid health care outcomes,” Dworkin said. “Improving the health of populations requires addressing discrimination, education, occupational safety, and other issues that our faculty are addressing in their practice and research.”

UW Bothell also has a strength in learning and research through a variety of health care partners and community-based organizations.

“I cannot underscore enough how vital our community partnerships are to the programs at Bothell. These collaborative relationships benefit both our students and the community,"

Finally, Dworkin said, the School of Nursing & Health Studies curriculum also has shifted to recognize the many ways social inequalities can shape the distribution of disease and health outcomes.

“Bothell, as a campus, holds social justice as a core value, and we prepare our students to address inequities in health care through course work on social justice, policy and ethics.”

"We view nurses," Dworkin said, "as leaders who are well-positioned to lead and make positive change in the area of population health.”

Read about the school's new minor in health education and promotion.