Opinion

Our lives are longer thanks to public health

Take a look around you. Public health is in action: from the clean water running out your tap to the fresh fruit on the counter top. What is hidden is public health’s hard fought work in action: protecting us from the measles through immunizations, and the tobacco-free air we breathe in our community-spaces. These and other hidden actions have doubled our life expectancy over the last century.

We are the public health generation. We have never known it otherwise: we were born into a public health world, public hospitals, emergency rooms, immunizations, and a system that cared not only about prevention, but health promotion. It's why we know more about the flu but don't know about cholera; it is why we may never have heard of listeria but know we can eat a burger at the bar.

In our work teaching public health to registered nurses, we know that they will need to not only know how to read the vital signs of a community, but they will need tools to teach and lead others in the prevention of disease and the elimination of health inequities. The Affordable Care Act put the public back into public health. A little known provision now requires hospital systems in addition to health departments to gather data on the health of their community: gathering and listening for those vital signs.

Health care can only be affordable if public health acts to prevent disease, increase life expectancy, and end inequities. This is why we engage students in partnership with community agencies and organizations in the South Sound: building better resources for marginalized groups to sign up for affordable healthcare, assessing the community for emergency preparedness, identifying gaps in accessing food sources and barriers to physical activity for pregnant women, and advancing tobacco free policies in our college campuses.

Regardless of work setting, nurses need to understand the social, economic, political, and environmental factors that influence health, and how to work in partnership to promote health and effectively intervene. In order to meet the health needs of individuals, families, and communities, it is essential that professional nurses gain knowledge of and experiences in community, public and population-health.

As educators we strive to do just that.

What happened amidst the doubling of our life expectancy over the last century? For white Americans, life expectancy increased from 48 years to 78 years; for black Americans it jumped from 33 years to 77. While these increases were larger for blacks than whites, blacks still trail whites. All lives matter ... and we have work to do so that the student nurses we educate will be at the forefront of advocating for equity and social justice, defending the progress made, and caring for the next public health generation.

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