How Nurses are Making a Difference in Public Health

Registered nurses (RNs) make up the largest component of hospital staff, are the primary providers of hospital patient care, and deliver most of the nation’s long-term care, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. As front-line clinicians, nurses are ideal advisers to policymakers because they observe the opportunities and challenges faced by patients and providers daily, if not hourly. This is evidenced by the significant contributions made by notable health care providers who have successfully transitioned from the bedside to the policy side. Below are three of the many inspiring RNs who have applied their unique clinical insight and advocacy experience to help shape public health policy through government, education and public service.

  1. S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, MPA, BSN, RN

Professional profile: Johnson served as a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Carter and held the position of chief psychiatric nurse at the VA Hospital in Dallas. As the first nurse elected to the Texas state legislature, Johnson was also the first African American and the first female ranking member on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Influence on public health policy: Through her work on several congressional committees and subcommittees, Johnson supports science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and helps creates policy related to environmental concerns such as water conservation, pollution control, infrastructure and hazardous waste cleanup. She co-authored legislation to improve psychiatric treatment nationwide — provisions of which were included in the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law in December 2016. Her efforts extend beyond U.S. borders with A World of Women for World Peace conference, which focuses on international human rights and equality for women.

  1. Nancy Ridenour, PhD, APRN, BC, FAAN

Professional profile: Ridenour is a health policy educator who has held senior academic roles at the University of New Mexico College of Nursing, the Illinois State University College of Nursing, and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing. She was recently named the next dean of the Goldfarb School of Nursing and president of Barnes-Jewish College.

Influence on public health policy: Ridenour’s legislative history centers on advocating for nurses — informing laws that would increase access and funding for primary care and nurse education, as well as scope-of-practice provisions enabling nurses to treat patients to the full extent of their training and education. While at Illinois State University, Ridenour worked with the Illinois congressional delegation, Sen. Dick Durbin and the U.S. Secretary of Labor to funnel laid-off workers and students with nonscience bachelor’s degrees into federally funded career transition nursing programs.

  1. Rear Admiral Susan Orsega, MSN, RN, FNP-BC, FAANP, FAAN

Professional profile: As chief nurse officer, Rear Admiral Orsega leads the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service Nurse Professional Affairs, the same organization where she got her start as a part of the Junior Commissioned Student Externship Program. After her role in the 2015 response to Ebola, the application of Liberia’s first human vaccine trial and the operational management of Sierra Leone’s first Ebola ZMapp trial, Orsega is currently working on several humanitarian health missions on a response deployment team.

Influence on public health policy: Recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and appointed by the former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Orsega advises health-related committees that affect nurse officers in the military. Orsega is a senior program management officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health where she oversees the operations of international nurse research partnerships with foreign governments.

These nurses made an impact on health policy on a national scale by exploring ways to advocate for their patients through the implementation of public health policy. On issues ranging from nurse-to-patient ratios, geographic barriers and social determinants of health, dedicated nursing professionals are uniquely poised to influence policy for the benefits of patients, families and the community at large.