Public Health Nurses in Rural/Frontier One-Nurse Offices

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Introduction: Public health nursing is the foundation of the United States’ (US) public health system, particularly in rural and remote areas. Recent increasing interest in public health in the USA has highlighted that there is limited information available about public health nursing in the most isolated areas, particularly in the US. The purposes of this study were to: (1) describe the characteristics, competency levels, and practice patterns of public health nurses (PHNs) working in remote one-nurse offices; and (2) compare PHNs working in one-nurse offices with nurses working in multi-nurse offices in Idaho, in relation to their demographic characteristics, practice patterns and competency levels.

Methods: Using a cross-sectional descriptive design, a statewide sample of 124 PHNs in Idaho, including 15 working in one-nurse satellite offices, were assessed in relation to their demographic characteristics, experience, educational background, job satisfaction, practice characteristics, and competency levels in March to May 2007.

Results: The solo (nurses working in one-nurse offices) PHNs were based in 15 different counties, 10 frontier (population density of less than 7 persons/1.6 km2; 7 persons/mile2) and 5 rural. The counties ranged in population from 2781 to 28 114 (mean = 11 013), with population densities ranging from 0.9 to 29.4 persons/1.6 km2 (mean = 8.6; 0.9 to 29.4 persons/mile2). The distance from their offices to the district main office ranged from 25.8 to 241.4 km (mean = 104 km; 16 to 150 miles, mean = 64.6 miles). All the solo PHNs were Caucasian females, with a mean age of 46.9 years and a mean of 22.5 years’ nursing experience. Educationally, 7 (47%) held a bachelor degree in nursing, 6 (40%) had associates degrees, 1 (7%) had a diploma in nursing, and 1 (7%) was a licensed practical nurse (LPN). These solo PHNs provided a wide array of services with support from other nurses in the district, including epidemiology, family planning/sexually transmitted disease clinics, immunization clinics, communicable disease surveillance, and school nursing. They expressed strong job satisfaction, citing the benefits of autonomy, variety, and close community ties, but also voiced some frustrations related to isolation. Their self-rated levels of competency were highest in the areas of communication, cultural competency, community dimensions of care, and leadership/systems thinking skills; and lowest in the areas of financial management, analytical assessment, policy development/program planning, and basic public health sciences skills. When the solo PHNs were compared with PHNs based in multi-nurse offices, there were no statistically significant differences between the solo and non-solo PHNs in demographics or competency levels, except in the competency area of community dimensions of practice skills. The mean self-rating for solo PHNs in relation to community dimensions of practice skills was significantly higher (3.9) than non-solo PHNs (3.2) (t = 3.547, p = .002).

Conclusions: These findings suggest that US PHNs practicing in isolated one-nurse offices in rural and remote communities are comparable to PHNs working in less isolated settings; however, solo nurses may have stronger community dimensions of practice skills. Their practice is more generalized than other PHNs and they express high levels of job satisfaction. The study was limited in that it was conducted in only one state and data were collected only by self-report. Further research is indicated to describe this unique subset of PHNs, particularly in terms of factors promoting recruitment and retention. Additional study into the conceptual aspect of isolation is also indicated in relation to public health practice in rural and remote areas.

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