How Nurses Are Caring for Their Communities

May 8, 2017, 1:15 PM, Posted by

Let’s recognize nurses for the roles they play within and beyond the health care setting.

A nurse plays with a young girl, showing her a stethoscope.

I was a visiting nurse early in my career, working outside the bricks and mortar of our health care system to provide care directly in patients’ homes. I saw firsthand the important role that the home and neighborhood environment plays in shaping health. I’m no longer a visiting nurse who sees patients, but I’m still a nurse who is building a Culture of Health—through my work here at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and out in the community.  

I recently volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in Trenton, where my colleagues and I helped build affordable homes for people in need of them. The tasks assigned to me didn’t require any nursing-specific skills, but many of the same qualities nurses bring to the job every day—teamwork, empathy, the ability to multi-task, and understanding how the conditions we live in affect our physical and mental well-being—made me feel comfortable (and even somewhat competent) on a construction site

Nurses across the country are volunteering in similar ways within their own communities. A recent study in the journal Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice (subscription required) suggests that 80 percent of 315 nurses surveyed are helping to improve their community’s health beyond the traditional health care setting. Some nurses volunteer by using their medical knowledge to promote health in the community. Others provide health screenings at community events, give advice on diet or exercise, and educate the public on the importance of hand washing and vaccinations. Nurses everywhere help improve community health in their capacity as engaged community members. They check in on elderly neighbors, serve on local boards and commissions, and organize fundraising efforts for health-related causes. Of course, this is in addition to their regular work responsibilities and their role as informal health care advisors to friends and family.

As trusted members of the community, nurses set an example for others and continually promote health outside their workplace. However the study showed that nurses often don’t give themselves much credit for these contributions. We often dismiss our volunteering as “not doing much,” despite the big impact we’re having on the lives our friends, neighbors, and our communities. The fact of the matter is, when it comes to building a Culture of Health—just as in so many other areas of improving health and health care—it “takes a nurse.”

So what can we do about these results?

First off, fellow nurses, take pride in your volunteer efforts. Ask your colleagues what they are doing in their community and share your own story, as well. Volunteering as a nurse is not always about providing health care services; we have many skills that translate to so many different settings

And if you’re not a nurse, you undoubtedly know one—either a nurse at your child’s school, your doctor’s office, at a loved one’s assisted living facility, or maybe even a family member. Be sure to openly express your appreciation for how selflessly and tirelessly the nurses in your lives are giving back day in and day out.

  • Nurses in New Jersey can join the Campaign for Action’s New Jersey Action Coalition efforts to match nurses to non-profit organizations who need your help. Visit their website to learn more.
  • Learn more about how RWJF is working to help to expand the impact of nursing-related leadership, policy and practice.


About the Author

Nancy Fishman / RWJF

Nancy Wieler Fishman, BSN, MPH, is a former senior program officer in the Research-Evaluation-Learning unit at RWJF. Her areas of work include supporting healthy communities, connecting community and health systems, and developing leaders to build a Culture of Health.