Giving Nurses the Tools to Address Unmet Needs of the 21st Century

March 12, 2019

Faced with the surge in “diseases of despair,” policymakers and leaders in the health care sector are beginning to see the limitations of the current highly centralized, medicalized system of providing health care. A new report commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says the nursing profession has a historic opportunity to address this public health crisis of the 21st century.

“There is growing recognition that medical care alone is insufficient to address growing health problems of today’s world,” said Patricia Pittman, PhD, the author of the report and co-director of the George Washington University Health Workforce Institute. “Nurses are uniquely positioned to coordinate partnerships and provide the kind of holistic, patient-centered care that can address the current rise in substance abuse and other diseases of despair.”

Pittman conducted a literature analysis and interviewed nursing leaders, policymakers and others to produce a comprehensive report, “Activating Nursing to Address Unmet Needs in the 21st Century.” Pittman describes nursing in the early part of the 20th century, a time when holistic care flourished and nurses and social workers developed strong partnerships. She also identifies today’s most innovative nurse-led or nursing models that have evidence of impact, and the report concludes with an analysis of solutions to the current crisis.

Nurses today have the potential to help transform the health care system to address growing health problems that are deeply rooted in social and economic conditions. To do this, Pittman says nursing leaders must strengthen a core set of nursing functions, embrace the idea of working at the intersection of other professions, and bolster nursing education with a stronger focus on population health, health equity and programs to ensure diversity in the nursing workforce.

Educators, employers and policymakers must also be willing to work with nursing leaders to create jobs with roles that allow them to build trust, establish partnerships and provide holistic care that can help individual patients, families and entire communities stay healthy. Government officials and policymakers must align payment and regulatory policies with the goal of transforming the health care system. Finally, Pittman, who is also a professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, calls for a robust research agenda aimed at spurring the process of change.

Activating Nursing to Address Unmet Needs in the 21st Century,” provides background for the National Academy of Medicine’s Committee on the Future of Nursing 2020-2030. To find out more about The Future of Nursing 2020-2030 and to sign up for email updates click here.