Many rural and urban communities face a shortage of qualified health professionals to meet the population’s needs. These underserved communities face unique challenges and nurses working in these areas need unique skills to meet those challenges.
What’s it like working as a nurse in an underserved community? What skills and qualities should nurses have in order to succeed in this area?
Amanda Buccina, BSN, is an RN for the Street Outreach Nurse Program for WellSpace Health in partnership with Sutter Health. She says that nurses should have a passion for working with underserved communities, possess strong coping skills, and understand the importance of self-care. She also notes that nurses working with underserved populations should be interested in and willing to make deep connections with people from all walks of life.
If you are thinking about pursuing a career as a nurse in an underserved area, these tips will help you succeed.
Understand the Culture
Erin G. Cruise, PhD, RN, NCSN, associate professor, Radford University School of Nursing, who has worked in public health and school nursing in rural areas and small hospitals for more than 10 years, says that nurses wishing to work in rural, underserved areas, and/or with vulnerable populations need to have a good foundation in clinical skills, organization, and communication. Cruise also emphasizes the importance of understanding the cultural dynamics of the community.
“Small hospitals and community agencies generally found in rural areas are often part of a close-knit community,” says Cruise. “People know each other and they want to know the nurse caring for them on a more personal level.”
Cruise says that new rural nurses can be taken aback by the expectation of openness. “Some nurses are not comfortable with having their personal lives become an open book,” she says. “It can be a thin line between patients just being friendly and curious and the nurse feeling that he/she lacks the privacy and anonymity found when working in larger agencies and big cities.”
People in rural or small town communities are also more likely to ask questions about private health information regarding their neighbors. “While neighborly concern and curiosity are usually quite innocent, nurses in these settings must be very careful and familiar with HIPAA and their own hospital or agency policies on confidentiality to avoid sharing that information inappropriately,” warns Cruise.
Build Strong Patient Relationships
A typical day for Buccina includes walking and driving around Sacramento, CA, meeting with patients on the streets, without the convenience of a full clinical facility. She works hard at building trust with her patients.
“A lot of my job is relationship building,” says Bucinna. “I work to build trust and rapport with my clients so even if they don’t need me in that exact moment, we have a relationship and familiarity with one another. I’m there when clients do want and need support, like medical advice, an advocate at a doctor’s appointment, help getting into an alcohol or drug rehab program, or just general wound care.”
Provide Judgment-Free Care
Cruise notes that many vulnerable people lack the resources that allow them to manage their health effectively, and nurses should be prepared to meet these patients right where they are, without judgment.
“They may have low literacy, live in poverty, live in environments that are polluted, run down, or crime-ridden; and work in jobs with low pay and dangerous conditions,” says Cruise. “People in these situations will pick up on a disapproving attitude by the nurse and shut down, shut the nurse out, and be less likely to follow his or her health care directions. Nurses should adopt a caring approach. While not condoning negative or criminal behaviors, accepting clients as they are and demonstrating concern for their health and well-being are more likely to motivate them to listen to the nurse’s advice and make positive changes.”
Jan Jones-Schenk, national director of Western Governors University’s (WGU) College of Health Professions and chief nursing officer for WGU, encourages nurses working with underserved populations to avoid making assumptions about their patients.
“Don’t label or assume individuals who don’t follow prescribed advice are non-compliant,” says Jones-Schenk. “There may be financial, social, physical, or cultural reasons why individuals do not follow the advice given. In such cases, the problem can easily be that it’s the wrong advice for that patient. Taking a patient-centered approach means the advice given has to be something the patient thinks makes sense too.”
Jones-Schenk advises nurses to remain open to listening carefully to understand the barriers and limitations individuals may be facing.
Gain Mental Health Experience
Buccina says that her best advice for nurses considering working in underserved communities is to gain some experience in mental health in order to understand human growth and development from a psychological perspective, and to become well-versed in social issues in order to avoid judgment and approach the population from a place of knowledge and compassion.
Finally, Cruise advises nurses working with vulnerable populations and/or in rural areas to find the time and space to take care of themselves.
“Because these communities are close-knit and vulnerable populations, they may mistake the nurse’s caring approach for a desire to have a more personal relationship. The nurse will have to set boundaries in a way that is kind and not perceived as rejecting of the client, yet allows the nurse to be seen as a professional and not just a friend,” says Cruise.