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How to... improve your population's health

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Stories about the state of the nation’s health don’t seem to have been out of the news recently. The government’s responses to issues such as obesity, alcohol consumption and sexual health mean there’s an exciting range of opportunities for nurses to support people in making lasting lifestyle changes.

While health promotion and improvement have always been an integral part of the role of nurses, there have never been as many opportunities for nurses to specialise and develop their skills. Here are just a few examples of roles posted on the NHS Jobs website recently:

  • Health promotion nurse;
  • Sexual health nurse/adviser;
  • Stop smoking nurse;
  • Health adviser;
  • Drug worker.

The staff mix will depend on what primary care trusts have decided are the areas of greatest need in their population. Many PCTs have strategic objectives in place in the form of a Health Improvement Plan (HimP - often prepared jointly with local authorities), or a public health strategy.

Have a look at your local PCT’s website - often these plans or objectives are outlined online. You can find out about opportunities for work shadowing, secondment or volunteering by contacting PCTs.

As well as opportunities to work in the wider community, you could also focus on working with specific client groups, such as the elderly, young children, or black and minority ethnic communities. Whoever you work with, you’ll need to be thinking about ways to:

  • raise awareness among service users on the importance of maintaining their health;
  • promoting the benefits of healthier lifestyle choices;
  • provide information on appropriate services that service users can access;
  • engage with local authorities and other partner organisations to ensure a cross-sector approach to promoting health and increasing participation in exercise;
  • adhere to local and national targets.

Great communication skills are a must for this role, plus a commitment to supporting people to make healthier lifestyle choices. You’ll also need to have an understanding of motivational interviewing techniques and/or counselling skills, knowledge of the specialist area (sexual health, for example), and a good understanding of public health initiatives. Being able to prioritise workloads is a must for this role.

Once you’ve mastered these skills, opportunities to develop could include becoming a lead for your specialism, eg smoking cessation lead, or strategic lead for public health.

Published in 2004, the government’s white paper Choosing Health set out the principles for supporting the public to make healthier and more informed choices with regard to their health, and established a range of measures to tackle health inequalities.

The priority areas identified were:

  • reducing the numbers of people who smoke;
  • improving sexual health;
  • reducing obesity;
  • encouraging participation in exercise;
  • reducing alcohol consumption;
  • improving mental health.

For background reading and to find details of other Department of Health initiatives and programmes, visit the health improvement pages of the DH website.

Run by the Careers Advice Service and sponsored by NHS Careers and Skills for Health, the Health Learning and Skills Advice Line provides careers information to support people working in healthcare. The friendly, trained career coaches can also give you constructive feedback on your CV and help assess your skills.

For a free, confidential discussion about your career, call freephone 0800 150 850 from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week.

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