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Here Come the Nurses!

Posted: Dec. 6, 2016

Student nurses check church members’ blood pressure and glucose levels.

The service is almost over at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin: The sermon has been given, the choir special sung and announcements made. All that remains to do are the blood tests.

Since 2008, student nurses in the alternate-entry Master of Science in Nursing program and undergraduates in public health classes have arrived after church services to check congregants’ blood pressure, glucose levels and other health issues.

The outreach was the brainchild of School of Nursing faculty members Shalonda Horton, PhD, RN; and Ana Todd, PhD, RN, both assistant professors of clinical nursing, who realized that many church members were not receiving the health care they needed. They also wanted to create additional sites for their students to get required clinical skills experience.

Dr. Horton and Dr. Todd established community partnerships and clinical site agreements first with Mt. Zion Baptist Church (MZBC) and then Rehoboth Baptist Church. Along with facilitating students learning public health concepts and developing spiritual care skills, these partnerships have allowed students to contribute toward the improvement of overall health among underserved faith-based communities in East Austin.

“Prior to our partnership with MZBC, I had a public health nursing clinical site fall through at the last minute, which meant I had to quickly find another site for my students,” Dr. Horton explained. “Since I was already doing health promotion at my church, I thought it would be a win-win situation to have students do their public health nursing rotation in a faith-based setting.”

The first group of students conducted community assessments and provided health education to the congregation. Based on the community assessment findings, subsequent groups of student nurses conducted health assessments on the congregation about perceived heath status, or how they rated their own health. They simultaneously measured their blood pressure, blood glucose and body mass indexes.

The faculty and students soon discovered that there was a significant disconnect between the congregation’s health perceptions and what the objective health measurements showed.

“People tend to think they’re healthier than they are, and the first order for the students was to try to close the gap,” Dr. Todd said. “They did this by discussing the results with their clients so they could see for themselves the actual state of their health.”

At first, the students saw little, if any, improvement in the overall health of the congregation. Knowing that the church members wanted to lead a healthier lifestyle, the faculty, church health ministry leaders, and students collaborated to implement case management as a strategy to help increase health-promoting behaviors among the church members.

Working one to one allowed the students to help them set and achieve personal goals. The number of personal success stories began to grow, and over the years the students have added other health promotion, and education events, such as healthy cooking demonstration classes, disaster preparedness and STI prevention among teens.

The outreach is proving to be successful all the way round: Students get an opportunity to apply what they learn in class and become aware of how faith-based communities can be effective channels for health promotion, and church members see their health improve.

“We had one graduate public health nursing student a couple of years ago who, based on her community assessment findings, expanded the church’s Habit for Health program, a health challenge that is culturally and spiritually appropriate for the congregation,” Dr. Horton said. “Afterwards, the student, her preceptor and a representative from MZBC were able to publish the findings of her intervention.”

Pastors, youth leaders and other church leaders are more than pleased that the program has become so successful. Today, when the students arrive wearing their burnt orange scrubs, the congregation shouts, “Here come the nurses!”

“Students see how their efforts are making a huge difference in the health of underserved populations and how appreciated those efforts are,” Dr. Todd said. “They’ve told us they wish they could help more people, and when they leave, they often say, ‘I’m coming back!’”

In addition to gaining clinical experience, the faith-based settings are giving students confidence to address patients’ spiritual needs. Research has found that many nurses feel inadequately prepared to provide spiritual care upon graduation. Placing students in faith-based settings during their public health nursing clinical rotation helps to address this issue and assists students in learning how to implement culturally appropriate interventions.

Dr. Horton and Dr. Todd hope the program will continue to grow and one day be student-run.

“Each semester, our students learn how to provide holistic care, strengthen their own communication and work in nontraditional settings,” Dr. Horton said. “They’re providing safety nets that prevent individuals from slipping through the health care delivery cracks. They’re revamping existing services in innovative — and caring — ways.”

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