To University of Memphis’ Loewenberg School of Nursing student Joni Gossett, 38108 is more than just a ZIP code. It’s also a diagnostic tool.
“As a group, we research the crime rate, income levels, household numbers and general health conditions in the area,” said Gossett, who also is president of LSON’s Student Nurses Association. “Part of the project is assessing the needs of the community. Environmental conditions, communications, housing facilities, even perceptions of that community can all affect our diagnosis of a patient.”
Gossett, who is in her fourth semester of Loewenberg’s five-semester Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, is referring to the school’s ZIP code project, one of several ways LSON students learn about the significance of geographic, demographic and socioeconomic data in patient care.
According to leading industry studies, a strong educational emphasis on research, data collection, statistical analysis, informatics and cutting-edge technology is necessary to better equip nurses to serve an increasingly diverse and aging population.
In 2010, the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published the report “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health,” which sets forth recommendations for transforming the country’s nursing industry of more than 3 million members into a stronger, more influential force in the nation’s changing health care system.
One of the report’s key recommendations is for a more highly educated nursing workforce facilitated by overall improvements in the education system, which would include competencies in areas such as evidence-based care, leadership, systems thinking, basic health policy and quality improvement.
The report challenges academic nurse leaders to work together to increase the national number of nurses with a baccalaureate degree from the current 50 percent to 80 percent in 2020.
In Tennessee that current number is closer to 45 percent, said Lin Zhan, dean of Loewenberg School of Nursing. She echoes the report’s stance that a more educated nursing workforce would be better equipped to meet increasingly complex health care demands, particularly when modern health care often depends on the use of sophisticated technology and highly developed analytical skills.
“Nurses now have to utilize informatics, technology, electronic patient records – we have much better data now that shows us where the gaps are in improving patient outcomes,” she said. “Nurses need to be able to use that technology to improve the efficiency and quality of health care.”
Educating students in collecting and evaluating data plays a major role in developing nurses with strong decision-making and patient assessment abilities.
“Our community health course, for instance, teaches students not to just look at an individual and his or her family, but to also examine that patient’s societal group, aggregates, diversity,” Zhan said. “What are the health issues in that particular population?”
Shelby County and the Memphis area, for example, have several region-specific health issues, according to stats provided by the Nursing Institute of the Mid South, a member collaborative comprised of local hospitals and schools of nursing that aims to “facilitate a top-quality regional nursing workforce that drives top-quality care in a changing health care environment.”
Obesity is particularly prevalent here. Citing the latest statistics from the Tennessee Department of Health, the Nursing Institute reports that in 2002-2004, obesity rates in the Memphis area exceeded both national and state levels. In 2003, 16 percent of the high school students attending Memphis City Schools were overweight, higher than both rising state and national levels.
So when addressing an individual patient’s concern about obesity, it’s all about looking at this much bigger picture and then applying it back to the patient, Zhan said.
“With obesity, it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘OK, you need to have a healthy diet and participate in physical exercise’ to patients. You have to look at it from a social ecological perspective: do they have access to healthy food in their communities? Do they have financial access to it? What are they serving children in their schools? Once a nurse develops a better understanding of a particular population, they can apply that context back to the individual and make more effective recommendations.”
Gossett said the integration of community and patient care is one aspect she appreciates most about her education at LSON.
“Loewenberg has brought me into a greater understanding of my city,” she said. “I’ve learned that nursing goes far beyond the bedside. It’s crucial to get out into the community and know what’s going on, what the environmental stressors are, what resources our patients have.
“We’re not policy makers, but the more information we can collect about our patients’ contributing situations, the better we can help our patients adapt to them.”