Envisioning the Future of Global Health Nursing

May 2013Diana Austin

On April 27, a group of UCSF School of Nursing alumni gathered to participate in a conversation with Dean David Vlahov; Sally Rankin, professor emerita and associate dean of Global Health and International Programs; and Jaime Sepulveda, professor of epidemiology in the School of Medicine and executive director of UCSF Global Health Sciences. The topic was the future of global health nursing.

Expanding Role for Nurses with New Global Health Challenges

“Nurses are the backbone of primary care and, typically, the ones who’ve trained other health workers in low- and middle-income countries,” said UCSF School of Nursing and Global Health Sciences faculty member Kim Baltzell, who organized the panel with Sepulveda but was called away the day it convened.

She and others speculate that nursing will become even more important as the kinds of health challenges the global community faces continue to shift. Ongoing urbanization, rapid aging of the world population and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma are among what Sepulveda refers to as “mega trends” in global health. Nurses have long taken a lead in helping patients address the physical impact of aging and chronic disease, as well as the psychosocial factors that affect how patients manage their conditions.

Coordinating Efforts and Increasing Interprofessional Cooperation

David Vlahov, Sally Rankin and Jaime Sepulveda Rankin cited several faculty and students whose projects exemplify the ways nurses are at the forefront in meeting global health problems. They include Ellen Scarr, director of the Family Nurse Practitioner program and a PhD student who is working on a study in Malawi to examine mother-to-child transmission of HIV in pregnant adolescents, and Jyu-Lin Chen, associate professor of Family Health Care Nursing, who is looking at obesity among children in Taiwan and mainland China.

As projects like these proceed, a key challenge is coordinating the efforts to better leverage limited fiscal resources and harness the extraordinary talent and knowledge at UCSF.

“Global health thinking needs to permeate everything we do across all four schools,” said Sepulveda. “We need to build a strong global health platform in a more organized way.”

UCSF already boasts a global health master’s program and a nursing minor in global health, but Sepulveda envisions an even bigger commitment: a School of Global Health, which would truly be interdisciplinary, bringing together not only nurses, doctors, pharmacists and dentists, but also other professionals, such as economists, engineers and lawyers. “It’s a 21st-century model,” he said, “and UCSF is the ideal place to do it.”

“We’re interested in creating a much more interprofessional dynamic with our curriculum, where we get out of silos,” said Baltzell. The current global health master’s program has begun to implement that vision, with students from a wide variety of backgrounds. This year’s group includes an Ethiopian dentist and a documentary filmmaker in addition to nursing and medical students, who come together for an intensive course of study before spreading out across the globe to work on their master’s projects.

“It’s brilliant,” said Baltzell, because each student brings his or her unique strengths and weaknesses to the table, and students help and learn from each other.

Many believe global health may well be the platform upon which the seemingly elusive dream of true interprofessionalism is realized. Said Rankin, “It’s easier to accomplish in global health settings than elsewhere. Those boundaries [between health care professionals] are still so entrenched, but in global health there’s more blurring because it’s nurses who are providing care to most people on this planet.”

Meeting the Demand for Global Health Education

Alumni guests Cathy Camenga, Carol Mowbray and Susan Walczak A School of Global Health also would be ideally poised to meet the growing demand for educational programs in global health. Rankin noted that the interest in global health programs is clearly growing. UCSF Global Health Sciences gets hundreds of applicants each year for its master’s program but can accept only 40 or fewer students.

Sepulveda believes there are many factors driving that interest, including rapid globalization and an increasing awareness of our interconnectedness and the way health impacts society at every level, from the global economy to national security. He also sees a growing sense of social consciousness among young people that makes them want to contribute to improving the lives of people everywhere.

At its root, said Sepulveda, “The interest in global health is about compassion.”