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7 Ways Nurses Can Make a Positive Impact on Vulnerable Populations

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Nurses can make a difference in the lives of those who are struggling to find access to affordable healthcare. Read on to find out how you can help.

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7 Ways Nurses Can Make a Positive Impact on Vulnerable Populations

According to the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, vulnerable populations are defined as "those at greater risk for poor health and health care status." The number of medical problems and the rising costs of healthcare, leave certain vulnerable Americans struggling to find timely access to affordable health care. Vulnerable populations are at greater risk for developing health problems that contribute to declining health, low understanding of their diagnosis or treatment, and contracting communicable diseases.

Social Determinants of Health

Conditions in which people live, learn, work, play, and worship can impact health and produce health disparities. Social determinants that "negatively impact health and well-being include poverty, lack of access to quality education or employment, unhealthy housing, unfavorable work, and neighborhood conditions, exposure to neighborhood violence, and the clustering of disadvantage in particular groups of people and particular places", according to the article,  Evaluating Strategies for Reducing Health Disparities by Addressing the Social Determinants of Health.

Economic Impacts for the Nation

Health disparities have an incredible economic impact on the country as a whole. If the nation was able to decrease disparities, it would be a significant financial advantage to the US. According to the same article, eliminating racial and ethnic disparities would reduce medical care costs by $230 billion and indirect costs of excess morbidity and mortality by more than $1 trillion over three years.

National efforts have put together plans to accommodate and offset the health disparities, but much work remains, and nurses can continue to be a positive force for change. The "fix" includes addressing social determinants of health by creating public health policies and programs that can address poverty, vulnerability, and poor health.

Ten years ago, one of the Healthy People 2020 Initiatives was a 10 -year project to improve healthcare outcomes nationwide by improving access to assist patients. Even though there has been a significant leap in closing some of the gaps, in disease prevention, for example, health disparities remain and their increased risk for chronic conditions, the same article claims.

How Can Nurses Help?

Nurses are in a unique position to help vulnerable patients. The first step is to screen the patients. Next is to develop a care plan to collaborate with social workers to help case manage and provide the best possible solutions to care.

Other ways to help include:

Recognize the vulnerable patient 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vulnerability as "being susceptible to attack and subject to criticism." The first step to finding a solution is to admit there’s a problem. Analyzing groups of people that are disadvantaged will uncover a myriad of health conditions that need attention.

Screen the patient

Nurses are square in the frontline when it comes to seeing patients and always utilizing screening tools to find gaps in a patient's care. Meticulous screening may thus uncover vulnerable patient groups. For example, one of the largest vulnerable populations hidden because of the ramifications of law enforcement is the victims of human trafficking. 

It is estimated that 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Many of these victims have been physically, sexually, and psychologically abused and come to the ER seeking care. According to the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, it's estimated that 29-50% of these individuals access healthcare services while in the trafficking ring. Emergency Department nurses are on the frontline and can provide resources and access to providers for assistance.

Advocate for the vulnerable populations

The voice of the nurse is the most reliable tool for advocacy. Silence is never the answer. Nurses should advocate to promote equality and adequately address the social determinants of health. This includes finding the patient resources and collaborating with the team.

Become a critical thinker 

Providing treatment and sending the patient "on their way" ignores the root problem. Nurses who help determine what contributes to the diagnosis in the first place and look at how to effect change can be part of the solution. Nurses who work with vulnerable groups can use critical thinking skills to find unconventional solutions that will ultimately strengthen the unit and organization.

Obtain your certification 

According to the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, nurses who are certified have better nursing knowledge, expertise, and clinical judgment. This can help put together a plan for the vulnerable patient because tackling social disparity requires a myriad of knowledge sources.

Become involved in your community

Community involvement is essential for the nurse who wants to contribute as a global leader in policy change and advocacy organizations. Community-oriented care can help develop team building and collaboration with providers and resources for the "one-stop-shop" when it comes to delivering high-quality care to increasingly vulnerable patients.

Participate in policy 

Nurses are in a key position to engage in decision-making efforts to solve the problems of vulnerable populations. Nurses, together, can collectively come up with solutions for these patients. They can think about screening these patients that understand their specific needs and become familiar with the local area to determine the best resources for patients. If an area lacks specific resources, nurses can collaborate with a team to create these resources with assistance from government funding.

Nurses can positively impact the vulnerable populations of patients in a variety of ways. Helping patients understand their diagnosis while coming together with other healthcare team members can help build the care plan that will work for them in their home environment. Nurses can participate in their local community by developing policies for improvement for this specific population of patients. Considered as a whole, this can help facilitate positive change for a population that needs it.

Dr. Linda Plank, Ph.D., RN, is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Louise Herrington School of Nursing at Baylor University offering top online nursing programs.

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2 Comment(s)

tnbutterfly - Mary, BSN, RN

Specializes in Peds, Med-Surg, Disaster Nsg, Parish Nsg.

Thank for sharing this important reminder of advocating for vulnerable populations.


Specializes in Sm Bus Mgmt, Operations, Planning, HR, Coaching. Has 39 years experience.

On 9/22/2020 at 3:15 PM, Dr. Plank said:

How Can Nurses Help?

Nurses are in a unique position to help vulnerable patients. The first step is to screen the patients. Next is to develop a care plan to collaborate with social workers to help case manage and provide the best possible solutions to care.

Love this article.  Anyone can ask themselves "who are the vulnerable in my community and how can I find out more about their needs?  Who can I work with to help close the gap or fulfill those needs?"  Human trafficking is such a good example.  Thanks for sharing.