The role of nurses in global health equity and security

Our world is more connected than ever before. From social media and the internet to immigration, air travel, and migration, it is easier for people to interact with individuals worldwide than at any other time in history. But while the conversation about a “global economy” grows, the discussion about global health continuously falls by the wayside. Global health refers to the collective health challenges and triumphs faced by the entirety of Earth’s population. There are no country or political lines here – just a shared human experience with the potential to change the world.

Nurses play a critical role in improving global health outcomes. They are also one of the first lines of defense against preventable problems such as health inequity. They are uniquely positioned to help address the care disparities many communities currently experience. This article will examine nurses’ role in achieving global health outcomes.

Global perspectives in nursing

A few decades ago, “global health” was a foreign concept. For many health professionals, their professional focus stayed in their communities. At most, their perspective might also include neighboring cities or states, but rarely anything beyond the confines of their home country. Healthcare professionals treated their local communities and addressed health issues as they popped up without much concern for major global health events. However, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a dangerous approach to adopt. Global health, as the name implies, affects people around the world. And with a world as connected as ours, with travelers able to cross the globe over the course of a day or two, things that impact distant countries can quickly run rampant in local communities.

Health and wellness are universally important. They stretch far beyond national and geographical borders, in fact, as well as cultural boundaries. Few things are as relatable as being ill or injured and needing help. These shared experiences (including the experiences of treating these health needs) form a global healthcare perspective. This perspective is especially important for nurses as it invariably leads to an increased understanding of health equity and how their work helps promote it. Through this global health understanding, nurses are empowered to improve their care delivery, advance education and knowledge, and influence policy on international and national fronts.

Global perspectives in nursing also help nurses excel when working with diverse patient populations, which often include individuals from around the world. Their ability to interact and communicate within their disciplines and with patients and fellow professionals outside of it helps address health disparities among vulnerable populations and, ultimately, promotes global health initiatives.

Global health outcomes in nursing

Global health outcomes are shared goals professional healthcare providers worldwide work towards

meeting. Some of the most important include life expectancy, maternal and newborn health, child mortality, and disease burden. This section will explore some of these critical health objectives and how nurses can help improve outcomes.

Life expectancy

Life expectancy is more than just a measure of how long someone lives. It serves as a measure to represent how healthy a population is. A nation where the average life expectancy is 35 years of age might be inherently less healthy than a nation where the average life expectancy is 85 years of age. The question becomes why people are living longer or shorter than expected and how medical professionals can intervene to help extend their quality of life for longer.

Nurses can help improve life expectancy in a few different ways. First, nurses often directly impact patients at every stage of life. Nurses are a critical part of life for most people, from labor and delivery to immunizations for school and adolescents, and adult care. It is not only during advanced years that nurses affect life expectancy, in other words, but rather the way they interact with patients throughout their lives that shape their healthcare experiences and decisions.

With that said, nurses certainly also greatly impact the health of elderly patients. Research into the impact of nursing on people 65 years of age found that meaningful relationships with medical staff contributed to an increased lifespan. Nurses are well-positioned to provide exercise-based intervention to preserve mobility, too.

By providing the best care possible during interactions with patients at every age, as well as specifically once they reach an advanced age range, nurses significantly impact life expectancy.

Maternal and newborn health

Maternal and newborn health is always a concern. Despite medical advancements and improvements in disease detection, prevention, and treatment, new mothers are still at a relatively high risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes, be it something that happens mid-pregnancy or a post-natal emergency. And while maternal mortality is slowly improving worldwide, there is still a lot to do to make pregnancy and birth safer for mother and child.

Nurses can significantly affect the health outcomes of mothers and their newborn children. On a basic level, they can ensure that they are providing safe, effective care as much as possible when interacting with mother and child, but the potential for their intervention runs beyond this. For example, nurses are best positioned to pick up on potential signs of distress during labor and delivery and risk factors for preventable issues during pregnancy.

Improving maternal and newborn health outcomes will take dedication from medical professionals of different specializations from different parts of the world. Some of the most important individuals with the chance to significantly improve them are, and will likely remain, nurses. Well-trained and experienced nurses are worth their weight in gold.

Child mortality

Over the past few decades, the world has made great strides in improving child survival rates. In 1990, for example, one in every 11 children died. By 2021, that number was reduced to one in every 26 children, which is a significant improvement. As you’ve probably already realized, one child death for every 26 children is still far too much. But what can we do to help further reduce child mortality rates?

Much research has gone into examining nurses’ role in patient mortality. The vast majority of it has proven that nurse staffing has a significant effect on the health outcomes of their patients, and this holds true for pediatric care, too. In fact, nursing staff has repeatedly been tied to reducing newborn mortality rates along with infant mortality rates, neonatal mortality rates, and perinatal mortality rates.

Experienced nurses with the tools and time to provide excellent care are indispensable in reducing child mortality. This is likely no surprise given their importance on overall life expectancy, which we discussed earlier, but it is still important to note. Aside from specialists, nurses are some of the most important individuals in the fight against reducing child death.

How do nurses affect global health outcomes?

We have discussed the way nurses affect specific health outcomes above, but on a general level, nurses can either make someone feel comfortable seeking help or convince them that the hospital is a scary place to be avoided at all costs. Ideally, of course, they will do the former. They hone their ability to relate to patients from all walks of life by bringing their life experiences to the job, especially as more of them see it as a second career for nurses. This means that many of today’s nurses enter the profession after spending time in other fields and having completed a degree, such as those offered by Elmhurst University, to help them transition into their brand new career path. By bringing the prior experiences and knowledge they have acquired to the profession, nurses can relate with patients from all walks of life and offer them compassionate care. This alone can go a long way towards reducing the fear that sometimes comes with hospital visits, encouraging visitors to seek prompt care in the future.

They are also critically important to the outcome of specific health events and crises. From pregnancy to birth and, ultimately, death, nurses are the healthcare professionals most patients interact with. They have a unique ability to build lasting relationships with patients that could help them shape their attitudes toward healthcare and preventative steps.

Social determinants of health

We’ve talked about global health outcomes and why nurses are such an important part of achieving them and reducing medical disparities among vulnerable populations, but we have yet to look at the factors impacting who receives adequate healthcare and who doesn’t. Since these issues have a direct impact on global healthcare objectives and nurses can intervene in some of them directly, it is important to understand the social elements of healthcare.

Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the factors that impact health equity. There are five main SDOH domains:

  • Economic stability
  • Education access and quality
  • Healthcare access and quality
  • Neighborhood and built environment
  • Social and community context

These factors impact health equity, which is the measure of a nation’s healthcare access to all of its people regardless of money or status.

Health equity

Health equity is one of the most pressing health concerns experienced by populations across the globe. The term refers to everyone’s ability to access the highest level of healthcare needed. Ideally, all people would have easy and affordable access to preventative visits, checkups, and specialist visits alike, no matter where they live or how much money they have. If this happened and everyone around the world could receive the care they needed without worrying about the cost, we would have complete health equity.

Unfortunately, international economic systems prevent healthcare equity from occurring. Some countries have healthcare systems that make it easy for people to receive affordable care, while others not only have no such systems but also don’t have enough healthcare professionals to provide even the most basic care. People living in the latter countries face many challenges while searching for care. Some might live far away from bigger cities, for example, which results in fewer opportunities to visit healthcare professionals. Others might not have the money to seek care, which results in a lopsided system where the rich have access to healthcare while the poor live without it.

This lack of universal care results in health inequity. And until all people have access to quality and affordable healthcare, we will continue to see preventable health concerns overwhelm populations and cost billions, if not trillions or more, in healthcare costs every year.

Impact of SDOH 

Given the information about health inequity we detail above, you might already be aware that the SDOH on long-term well-being is severe. In fact, research has shown that these social determinants are often more important to someone’s overall health than the specific healthcare they receive or the lifestyle choices they make regarding their health. Several studies indicate that SDOHs are responsible for as much as 55% of health outcomes independent of other factors.

We looked at the basic category of social determinants above, but what do these actually look like in real life? There are a wealth of factors that can impact health equity and global health outcomes in both negative and positive ways.

Income, job insecurity, and unemployment are major determinants impacting the health of millions worldwide. Following closely behind are food insecurity, social protection, housing, and basic amenities. Someone with a secure job that affords them steady housing, plenty of food, and less stress is more likely to have positive health outcomes than someone who doesn’t. For example, individuals with no steady job, no secure housing, and no safe access to food are far less likely to experience positive health outcomes.

What do you think about health equity, SDOHs, and global health outcomes? Nurses can reach across social divides to help vulnerable communities reach their healthcare goals and needs, but there is always a need for more experienced workers. If you want to help after reading this article, why not pursue nursing as your next job? The world will thank you.