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The positive role nurses can play in preventative health care

In addition to duties such as taking vital signs, administering medications, making physical assessments, delivering test results and assisting physicians, nurses also play a significant role in disseminating important health information. By offering education and counseling, nurses significantly can aid in preventative health efforts nationwide. Preventative health refers to a collection of strategies that health care professionals encourage patients to implement to help stay healthy and reduce the risk of future disease.

Focus on preventative health care

When one thinks of health care, notions of treatment and management for existing medical conditions come to mind. A major component of health care, however, also involves the prevention of illness. Known as preventative health care, a number of strategies fall under this banner. A United Healthcare fact sheet details that procedures performed in a doctor’s office, such as physical examinations, drawing blood for testing, immunizations and screenings for certain illnesses can be considered preventative health care measures. This classification is used because the procedures are performed in order to uncover illness in its early stages or to look for signs that may indicate elevated risk for certain conditions.

A health care professional will screen for certain kinds of cancers — colon and breast cancer — as these diseases are typically far easier to treat if they are discovered in their earliest stages, before the onset of symptoms. A primary care provider also may test a patient’s blood sample for evidence of problems that could lead to disease further down the road: High cholesterol and high blood pressure can foreshadow the development of heart disease, for example.

As noted in the United Healthcare article, preventative measures such as screenings, physical examinations and immunizations often are implemented in accordance with demographic factors like age, gender and family history. A fact sheet from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detailed one such example, being colorectal cancer, which is widely screened for but only in adults over the age of 50. The CDC suggests the age threshold of 50 because adults younger than this are statistically at a much lower risk for exhibiting with disease.

Understanding health promotion

Health promotion is another component of preventative health care that is understood by the World Health Organization. This term denotes the practice of educating and encouraging individuals to take greater care of their own health by effectively managing any chronic conditions they may have and taking lifestyle steps to reduce the risk of illness. One component of health promotion may be education about nutrition and exercise or smoking cessation.

Why is preventative health care so important?

As detailed in a CDC guide, preventative health care strategies are introduced to keep the population as healthy and disease free as possible. After all, according to CDC statistics, a majority of the deaths recorded across the U.S. each year — around seven in 10 — are caused by chronic conditions that are largely preventable. For example, the leading cause of death in the U.S., as reported by journalist Hannah Nichols in Medical News Today, is heart disease, with cancer and respiratory diseases coming in second and third place, respectively.

In addition to helping curtail rates of disease, preventative health measures help reduce health care costs and the burden on vital services. They also help to keep people active and productive in society. Preventable chronic illnesses can keep people away from work, with illnesses such as obesity, high blood pressure and asthma being particularly costly to the economy in terms of lost workdays. The CDC fact sheet also stated that preventative health care is an effective way to help seniors stay as healthy as possible into an advanced age — a period when the risk of chronic conditions increases.

How can nurses help with preventative health care efforts?

In a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Patricia Chiverton et al hightlights the importance for nursing professional working on the frontlines of patient care to aid with preventative health care efforts. Nurses achieve this primarily through the dissemination of information that patients can harness to keep themselves as healthy as possible. The authors note that the growing emphasis on preventative health care differs somewhat from historical nursing practice, which previously was centered almost exclusively on disease management.

Nursing staff can help advance preventative health care efforts in a number of ways, with some of the most impactful including the following:

1. Providing general education

According to Hospital News, one of the most fundamental ways that nurses assist in preventative health efforts is through education. Nurses are qualified to talk to patients about a range of health-related topics, from nutrition and exercise, to other forms of disease prevention like practicing safe sex and refraining from drugs and excessive alcohol use. Education can be delivered in a number of ways and in many contexts. Nursing professionals may choose to host informational sessions about particular topics, or they may pass on written educational materials to patients, such as brochures and links to online resources.

The Hospital News article also cited a study that explained how nurses can use patient visits as an opportunity to initiate preventative health discussions. If a patient comes in with joint pain, a nurse can initiate a conversation about how excess weight can exacerbate pain before introducing weight management strategies. If a young patient seeks medical assistance with a chronic cough, a nurse can seize the moment to initiate a conversation about smoking cessation. Nursing staff essentially can promote health information and wellness strategies whenever they meet patients, helping disseminate important health information in the wider community.

2. Identifying at-risk patients

365 Healthcare Staffing Services President Aaron Kasdorf posted to LinkedIn explaining how the most imperative part of any preventative health care strategy is paying particular attention to demographics of patients with a high risk for certain diseases. The second most important aspect of preventative health is providing information about strategies for better health, as well as facilitating any necessary screenings. For example, patients with a family history of heart disease should be encouraged to receive routine cholesterol and blood pressure testing, and nurses should offer advice about how exercise and good nutrition can help support heart health. Another demographic that tends to need more preventative health guidance is the population of older adults, as they are at a statistically higher risk for a range of chronic conditions, including diabetes, stroke and osteoporosis.

3. Helping facilitate access to care

Kasdorf explained that it is common for patients to remain uncertain or in the dark as to the kinds of services they are entitled to under their health plans. Consequently, many miss out on vital preventative services, such as cancer screenings, blood testing and immunizations. Nurses are able to counsel patients on the details of their health plans and help connect individuals with the services they need and are entitled to.

4. Educating the community

According to the Nursing Council of Hong Kong, nurses also can help expand communitywide health care education. Nursing professionals can partner with local organizations, such as community centers or faith-based groups, to hold events pertaining to public health — a lecture on good nutrition, a blood drive or a free cancer screening event. The nurse’s role can extend beyond a medical practice and into the community at large.

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