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Why Nurse Practitioners Are Pivotal in Health Equity Work

Nurse practitioners have the tools to be instrumental in health equity work, but need regulatory support to utilize those tools.

When COVID-19 first came ashore in the United States, it quickly became apparent that the virus would bring to light racial health disparities that have long pervaded the healthcare industry.

It didn’t take long for the virus, which can become more harmful when an individual has comorbidities, to show itself more harshly among certain populations. Across the country, more Black patients have suffered from COVID-19 and in worse forms, according to Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) data.

In the agency’s weekly report ending on July 11, 2020, CDC said there were 227.1 COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 non-Hispanic Black patients, compared to only 49 COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 white patients.

For non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native patients, that rate came in at 273 hospitalizations per 100,000 patients, and 224.2 hospitalizations per 100,000 Latinx patients.

Across the industry, leaders were largely unanimous in saying that these health disparities are not new in the age of coronavirus; instead, coronavirus has shown an unflattering spotlight on health disparities that were already there.

“Sadly, the health disparities that are making the news today aren't new and they're not specific to COVID-19,” said Sophia Thomas, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP, the president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).

For Thomas, health inequity has been a long-standing issue. Nurse practitioners and those working within the AANP specifically have been sounding the alarm on healthcare disparities for years, she said. The current climate with COVID-19 has provided a tangible example of how health inequities ultimately manifest.

Health inequities start with the social determinants of health, Thomas explained, and how those social risk factors limit an individual’s ability to achieve wellness. Because traditionally underserved populations, like Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous populations, must contend with structural and cultural limitations to care and other resources, they adversely experience social determinants of health.

“When you think about long-term health outcomes and assisting in staving off short-term health complications, providers need to consider things such as poverty, economic stability, safe and accessible housing, and food security,” Thomas, a practicing nurse practitioner herself, told PatientEngagementHIT.

“We talk about food deserts, dependable transportation, and then probably most importantly from our aspect, training and education that provides a pathway for all patients to have greater access to primary care.”

Again, this isn’t a new trend, Thomas acknowledged. Decades of institutional inequities have set the stage for a health equity crisis to come to bear like it has during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Really, the CDC's recent racial and ethnicity data are proof positive that health systems, policy makers, healthcare providers all need to work together now more than ever to stop the COVID-19 impact on communities of color,” Thomas explained.

And it’s nurse practitioners who can play a pivotal role in that, she asserted.

“What makes us unique is that we have a foundation in nursing and with that we also have a holistic approach to patient care,” Thomas stated.

“So when we, for example, tell a patient she has diabetes and give her a prescription for her medication, we're not just prescribing medication and saying ‘follow up with us in three months.’ We're making sure that she can afford that medication. We're discussing with her at that time some diet and lifestyle changes.”

And it’s that very discussion that Thomas said truly makes a different in self-management for a chronic illness and can ultimately tame those comorbidities that have manifested themselves during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Delivering that care management across every community, especially traditionally underserved ones disproportionately experiencing social determinants of health, will be the first step to addressing health equity, at least on a micro scale.

“The most important thing is listening. But with that, before we start the office visit or discussing the reason why patients are there, we may just do a little bit of small talk to get to know them to hear about their life,” Thomas advised, outlining what an encounter that addressing social determinants of health with a nurse practitioner can look like.

“In hearing the stories, they key us into possible issues that may happen,” Thomas said.

During the coronavirus pandemic specifically, Thomas has been taking advantage of the widespread use of telemedicine to understand the social circumstances in which her patients live. Telemedicine lets Thomas see her patients’ housing situations, or during a conversation about nutrition Thomas can prompt her patients to show her their pantries, if they are interested and engaged.

And perhaps most important, nurse practitioners are poised to establish trust with their patients, something that is essential for discussing sensitive topics like social needs and is important when working with traditionally marginalized communities.

“We call on our nursing foundation of compassion and empathy to build a relationship with patients and their family members,” Thomas explained. “Surveys year after year show that nurses are listed as one of the most trusted professions.”

Patients will tell Thomas things they have never felt comfortable admitting to their doctors, she shared, underscoring the important role nurses play in being a trusted confidante for underserved patients.

But nurse practitioners can’t accomplish these goals without some support. Importantly, Thomas said nurse practitioners need expanded scope of practice regulations in order to fulfill their potential while treating patients.

“There are 77 million Americans that live in communities that don't have adequate access to primary health care, and about 80 percent of rural America is actually designated as medically underserved,” Thomas said.

At the same time, the 10 states with the best health outcomes also have the most flexible scope of practice laws for nurse practitioners, Thomas said, citing the US News and World Reports rankings. In the 10 states with the worst health outcomes, nurse practitioners face the strictest scope of practice laws.

When access to quality care is at the crux of health inequities, Thomas said this is a huge issue.

Next, AANP is calling for better reimbursement for care that treats downstream health issues. Again, this type of care that addresses the social determinants of health will also address health inequities.

Third, AANP is calling on better and more transparent data about racial health disparities, especially with regards to COVID-19. In the short-term, such data can help address the coronavirus pandemic; in the long-term, this data should help alleviate the groundwork which led to the acute health equity crisis seen right now.

And finally, Thomas and AANP advocated for a task force set to address health inequities. Again, short-term goals should center on COVID-19 disparities, but moving into the long-term they should look at health inequities as a whole.

Nurse practitioners have the skills needed to begin work on health equity. These medical professionals, known for their holistic approach to medicine and positive rapport with patients, will be instrumental for an industry looking to address the social factors that limit access to care for traditionally marginalized populations.

As nurse practitioners wait in the wings to fulfill those goals, it’s going to take policy-level action to initiate long-lasting change, Thomas concluded.

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