About 300 million people live in the United States today, and almost 60 million of them live in a place that is considered rural. People in rural areas generally live far away from services like healthy food, pharmacies, and healthcare. Community health nurses, or rural health nurses, play an important part in bridging access to care for patients in rural areas. A rural health nurse is a licensed nurse who practices nursing in communities with small populations that are geographically and often culturally isolated. Rural nurses may work in a small hospital, community clinic, mobile health center, doctor’s office, or the patient’s home. We’re taking a closer look at the role of these healthcare providers.
Why is rural health nursing important?
People who live in rural areas are more likely to be poor and uninsured. At the same time, they also are more likely to suffer from severe chronic illnesses such as hypertension or diabetes. These chronic illnesses are often poorly controlled, which has decreased the life expectancy to 76 years as opposed to 79 for people living in urban areas.
There is a physician and provider shortage worldwide right now, but nowhere is it as devastating as it is in rural areas. Currently, there are about 40 healthcare providers per 10,000 residents in urban areas, while in rural areas, there are only 13 healthcare providers per 10,000 residents. These residents are more likely to be over an hour away from the closest doctor’s office or hospital, making regular visits required for chronic illness management almost impossible. Other issues for those in the rural setting include:
Shortage of healthcare professionals in their communities
Inability to schedule timely appointments
Cost of healthcare services
This is where rural health nursing can come in. While there is still a nursing shortage, it is not as stark as the physician shortage. In the United States, there are about 11 nurses per every 1,000 residents in all areas, making nurses much better positioned to care for those harder-to-reach communities. More than half of healthcare providers working in rural health are currently nurses, really pioneering the entire healthcare specialty.
What is it like to be a rural health nurse?
Rural nurses have close interaction with the communities they serve and often practice with a great deal of autonomy and independence. Because the patient population ranges from infants to the elderly, nurses in rural areas need solid clinical skills and a varied experience base. Additionally, nurses who work in these areas should be familiar and versed in the culture of the people in the community.
A day in the life of a rural health nurse can vary drastically, but there are some consistencies. Rural health nursing is often structured through home healthcare visits, which brings healthcare to those who cannot reach it regularly in an efficient way. This can mean traveling between isolated communities and driving for long distances and periods of time. Most nurses have a schedule of home visits every day, starting at around 7 to 8 am. Travel time is often worked into the schedule and can vary day-to-day. Visits can include returning home from the hospital and help with medications, paperwork, and plan of care moving forward. They can also include things like:
- Assessments and care of wounds
- Administration of IV medications
- Education on how to check blood sugar and blood pressure at home with new equipment
Sometimes these visits are one-time visits, and sometimes you see the same patient every day.
Skills rural health nurses need
As a rural nurse, you may not be in close proximity to other nurses and physicians as you would in a hospital setting. For that reason, nurses practicing in rural areas need to be confident and sure of their nursing skills and knowledge base. They have to be independent, quick-thinking, and proactive when assessing and caring for their patients. Their confidence should empower their patients to take control of their own health.
Rural health nurses are also strong critical thinkers and problem solvers. They don’t have the same resources they would have in an urban or hospital setting. Even basic medical supplies like IV poles may need to be fashioned out of a coat hanger or other household items. They know how to handle these situations and never let them affect the care they give their patients.
If you’re planning on working as a nurse in a rural area, you also need high-level assessment skills and be able to triage and prioritize patients and tasks quickly. Knowing if further care is required, whether it be their doctor or transportation to a hospital, is vital for keeping patients safe, especially during home visits.
Rural health nurses are quick thinkers, resourceful, proactive, and creative! The care they provide their patients never falters even in the face of lacking. They are strong and confident in themselves as people and nurses and can inspire their patients to feel the same.
In the end, rural nursing is about bringing healthcare to the patient. It’s about empowering them to take care of their health in their own homes. This is powerful and can truly change and possibly save someone’s life. Rural health nursing is a calling. Do you feel called to it?
Nurse leadership: 4 strategies to positively lead through change
Why nurses need solid business knowledge in healthcare
5 healthcare leadership styles you should try as a nurse
The National Association of Latino Healthcare Executives (NALHE) and Dignity Health Global Education (DHGE) are aligned in their mission to increase access to high-quality education and equity in healthcare