September 10, 2012 — Nurses are often on the front lines of caring for patients. But beyond their duties of monitoring vital signs and administering medications, they can also play a critical role in improving health care and eliminating health disparities.
That was the message delivered by the nation’s top official on health disparities on September 5 during the opening session of a major nursing research conference organized and hosted by the University of Miami’s School of Nursing and Health Studies.
“Nurse scientists are essential to putting an end to health disparities in the Americas and uniquely positioned to understand why disparities arise and to propose and then test solutions that will ensure that we all have an equal chance at a healthy life, regardless of race, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status,” John Ruffin, director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), said at the 13th Pan American Nursing Research Colloquium, held September 5-7 on Miami Beach.
“Understanding the individual is great,” said Ruffin. “But understanding factors that influence health is absolutely essential to innovative health interventions.”
He then outlined areas in which nursing professionals can help eradicate health disparities, pointing out the need to understand that where and how people live, work and play can affect their health, and that the quality of health can be enhanced by improving the conditions in which people are born and raised.
“The social determinants of health deal with issues that some of us would like to turn our heads away from—racism, discrimination, poverty, and how socioeconomic status and neighborhood conditions impact our lives. As nurses, the people who are on the front lines delivering health care, you cannot afford to ignore these issues,” said Ruffin, who, in his leadership role at the NIMHD, planned and helped execute the largest biomedical research program in the U.S. aimed at eliminating health disparities.
Ruffin’s comments, delivered in the Americana Ballroom of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel (the site of the three-day conference), were preceded by remarks from University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala. The former U.S. secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration, Shalala told attendees that nurses must assume leadership positions in global health care and serve as “full partners” in its “redesign and improvement.”
“Putting nurses in leadership positions around the world is critical to the future of health care but more important to the quality of health and the quality of outcomes that we desire,” said Shalala. “I do not believe that we can reduce health care disparities any place in the world without nursing playing a central role in that redesign.”
She called for investments in training the next generation of nursing researchers. “We must not restrain nursing leadership. They must be able to practice to the full extent of their education and training,” said Shalala, who two years ago helmed a national committee that recommended sweeping changes for improving the nursing profession.
Shalala’s and Ruffin’s statements came as nearly one thousand nurse scientists, scholars, and other nursing professionals from around the world gathered on Miami Beach for the colloquium, marking the first time that the biennial event was held in the U.S. Themed “Global Nursing Research Challenges for the Millennium,” the conference featured panels, roundtable discussions, poster sessions, and workshops that addressed everything from advancements in nursing research to ways to support research related to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals of combating hunger, poverty, and other pressing problems.
“Can we solve all of these problems in three days?” Nilda Peragallo, dean of the UM School of Nursing and Health Studies and co-chair of the colloquium, asked attendees at the opening ceremony. “We have a thousand bright minds here. So I don’t see why not.”
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