The Importance of Community Health Nursing

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What is community health nursing? The role of a community health nurse is to be a patient educator, advocate and clinician who provides direct patient care. Community health nursing connects diverse, underserved patients to essential healthcare services in non-traditional settings, focusing on primary and preventive care.

nurse speaks to mother in clinic

When you begin clinicals in nursing school, you’ll have opportunities to examine a vast range of nursing specialties, such as public health and pediatrics. It’s worth exploring any specialties that capture your attention. One option you might not be aware of is community health nursing.

What is community health nursing? A community health nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who provides direct patient care within community-based and non-traditional settings. These clinicians often work with diverse, underserved populations with limited access to traditional healthcare settings. Community health nurses do vital work supporting the health of local communities.

At Northeastern University, our Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program prepares you to become a skilled, versatile, compassionate nurse. While students can explore select specialties during clinical rotations, our ABSN program establishes a solid nursing foundation that allows students to pursue any nursing specialty — including community health nursing.

Let’s take a closer look at what a career in community health nursing might look like for you.

The Role of a Community Health Nurse

Every day looks different for a community nursing professional. These clinicians wear many hats and take on many roles, including patient advocate, patient and family caregiver educator, primary care provider and case manager.

Of course, these clinicians’ specific tasks depend primarily on the patients they see daily. Some of the primary roles of a community health nurse are as follows.

nurse with patient in hospital bed

Curious about how to choose a nursing specialty? Consider these tips.

Providing Essential Care

Community health nurses can be a veritable lifeline for underserved communities living in healthcare deserts (areas without reasonable access to essential medical services). These clinicians provide essential primary care with a focus on preventive health services. Services can include:

  • Blood pressure screenings
  • Cancer screenings
  • Substance abuse evaluations and treatment referrals
  • Immunizations
  • Management of chronic conditions, including diabetes, HIV/AIDS and heart disease
  • Well exams
  • Psychological screenings

These nurses often assess and treat patients, working closely with them to manage chronic issues or reduce health risks. When a patient needs services beyond the scope of an RN’s practice or outside the community nursing specialty, these clinicians refer the patient to a professional, program or community resource that can help.

Patient Education

Patient education is crucial for every nurse working directly with patients or disseminating medical information to the public (i.e., public health nursing). However, it’s arguably even more critical for community-based nursing professionals because they typically work within underserved communities.

Many of their patients have low levels of health literacy, which refers to a patient’s ability to understand and apply health information to make informed healthcare decisions and access appropriate care.

nurses and doctor standing side by side

A community-based RN generally spends a significant portion of their time counseling patients on their diagnoses, treatment options, lifestyle choices, health decisions and other aspects of their care. These clinicians help patients learn everything from ensuring a toddler receives proper nutrition to medication management.

When they achieve greater health literacy, community nurses’ patients are empowered to make informed decisions for themselves and their loved ones.

Local Advocacy

Like patient education, all nurses are responsible for advocating for their patients. However, community RNs typically work with underserved patients who lack adequate access to community-based resources and are in greater need of advocacy.

Many examples of healthcare advocacy include an RN who helps a family access a caregiver support network or a financial assistance program. An RN may also help patients with other logistical challenges. For instance, if patients have trouble getting to the pharmacy to pick up their medications, the RN may help them sign up for a medication home delivery service.

Community-Based Nursing Work Environments

You typically find RNs working in healthcare settings like hospitals, outpatient clinics and nursing homes. However, community-based clinicians are different. These RNs usually work in non-traditional settings, such as the following.

What is home health nursing? Explore this popular nursing specialty here.

nurse assisting patient walk down the stairs

Community Centers

Community health nurses often work within community centers — nonprofit clinics focused on delivering essential health services to diverse, underserved members of the local community. Since these areas frequently house low-income families and individuals, community centers generally provide care for free or on a sliding scale.

Homeless Shelters

Homelessness is a highly complex challenge that involves much more than being unhoused. In fact, not only can health problems (and their resultant steep medical bills) directly lead to homelessness, but being unhoused can cause or worsen serious medical conditions. Furthermore, being unhoused complicates receiving medical care and managing chronic conditions.

Community health nursing professionals who work within homeless shelters and with unhoused populations are up against a wide range of challenges, but the work they do can be impactful.

Aid Organizations

Nonprofit aid organizations that focus on providing healthcare services to those in need employ many community health nurses. Some aid organizations focus on serving domestic populations here in the U.S., while others deploy nurses and doctors overseas to areas most needed.

Correctional Facilities

Community health nursing clinicians working in correctional facilities face unique challenges, such as patients who are not allowed to administer their own medications and patients who may sometimes become belligerent. Furthermore, the inmate population of a jail or prison has little choice in their nutrition.

As an RN working in a correctional facility, it’s essential to treat patients with dignity and compassion and help them make healthy lifestyle choices to the extent possible while incarcerated. Correctional nurses may work with a variety of cases, including those involving injuries from acts of violence, substance abuse, mental illness and more. They must also serve as advocates to help patients access the necessary resources and health interventions.

Government Agencies

Local and state governments often establish publicly funded community health clinics to serve the local population. Here, you might do everything from alerting the public to a recent spate of rabid animal cases to administering immunizations to planning and implementing a car seat check program for new parents.


nurse giving student band-aid

Students in K-12 schools and higher education institutions need access to healthcare services during the school day. In this capacity, a community health nurse may assess a student’s physical capacity to join a sports team, treat students who become ill or injured and administer medications. These nurses also contact parents whose children experience health issues at school.

Top Qualities of a Community Health Nurse

If you aspire to join the community health nursing specialty, you may benefit from cultivating the following skills and characteristics.

Travel nursing is another exciting choice for RNs. What is travel nursing? Read more to learn what the career entails.

Communication Skills

Communication skills are essential for community-based RNs to effectively perform patient education and advocacy. Communication skills involve more than just speaking; they also encompass active listening. Active listening is one way to make underserved, often marginalized patients feel empowered, heard and validated. Plus, it’s essential for the patient assessment process.

Analytical Reasoning

Analytical skills enable nurses to observe a clinical situation, gather as much data as possible and make informed decisions contributing to favorable patient outcomes.

Effective Advocate

All community nurses must be strong advocates for their patients. In part, this means being able to help their patients understand their clinical situations and empower them to make informed healthcare decisions. This also entails connecting patients to available resources.

nurse checking heart

Compassion and Empathy

Community-based RNs need to have compassion for their diverse, underserved patients. They also need empathy — imagining themselves in their patient’s shoes — to cultivate a good rapport and encourage a trusting clinician-patient relationship.

Flexibility and Adaptability

A day in the life of a community RN requires flexibility and adaptability because of their diverse patient caseload. They might do everything from helping a new mother learn how to breastfeed to assisting a patient with substance abuse disorders to finding an affordable treatment program.

Take the First Step Toward a Career in Nursing

No matter where your nursing career takes you, you can build a solid academic foundation for the future at Northeastern University. Our ABSN programs near Boston and Charlotte allow future RNs to graduate in as few as 16 months by leveraging their past non-nursing college education. With small class sizes and dedicated faculty, our ABSN students have all the support they need to succeed.

If you have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree or a minimum of 62 college credits, you may meet the admissions requirements to enter the ABSN program.

Contact an admissions counselor today to find out if Northeastern University’s ABSN program is right for you.

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