The Nurse as a Social Worker

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In the early twentieth century the role of the Public Health Nurse (PHN) was expanding to meet the needs of individuals, families, and communities. Among the ideas discussed in the early nursing literature was that of the social nurse. This role was conceptualized as a combined nurse and social worker. Much of the PHNs work was with people of the poorer classes who needed assistance with both the medical aspects of their disease, as well as help with social needs such as food, rent money, and bedding. In this reprint from The Visiting Nurse Quarterly (1911), Ellen La Motte, Nurse-in-Chief with the Tuberculosis Division of the Baltimore Health Department, argued for this combined role based on economic efficiency. As she pointed out, it was “economic waste” to have two sets of workers going into homes when the nurse was capable, with additional education, of carrying out both roles. Additionally, from La Motte's perspective the only way the nurse could move beyond her role as the “physician's handmaiden” was through “social training” that prepared her for a broader scope of practice than that received in the hospital-based nursing schools. In the end, however, she left it open to nurses as “reasonable beings” to determine the direction the profession would take on this issue. La Motte's words provide historical context for issues contemporary public health nursing leaders are addressing, such as inter-professional boundaries between nurses and public health workers, reductions in the public health workforce, and economic constraints faced by the healthcare system. The Institute of Medicine mandate for inter-professional practice within the healthcare system, however, presents opportunities for exploring new roles and practice models for nurses in conjunction with our partners in public health.

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