Nurses in our Neighborhoods: How Gator Nursing Students are Impacting the Community

By Kyle Chambers

From rural health centers to school clinics, Florida’s nurses work tirelessly to meet the need for quality health care for underserved populations

However, the newest graduating class of Gator Nurses has already emerged as a driving force for promoting healthy living throughout local communities across the state.

From classroom to clinic

As part of the summer 2022 senior seminar, Clinical Reasoning and Personalized Nursing Care: Population Health, Accelerated BSN students from Gainesville and Jacksonville developed their own “community impact projects” designed to benefit a local area.

For this semester’s iteration of the course, students worked directly with community providers, such as a food bank where students developed educational materials to help cancer survivors choose foods to support their health and recovery. Others developed resources to help older adults overcome technology barriers in accessing health-related support and resources. Students followed the scientific method to create a solution based on the evidence and put their problem-solving skills to the test outside the walls of a classroom.

According to Clinical Lecturer Shari Huffman, MN, APRN, CNE, CPNP-PC, this course often marks the first experience student nurses have with the research quality improvement process.

“As nurses, we are required to be innovative to meet the needs of the communities we serve,” said Huffman, course instructor for Jacksonville nursing students.  “We were incredibly proud to see how all of our students recognized needs facing local partners and worked to see how they could use their background as clinicians to ‘lend a hand’ and innovate solutions. It’s really a story of collaboration that benefits all involved.”

Connected with care

To Evelyn Brodskaya (BSN 2022), who graduated this month from the Jacksonville program, it is a test she believes she and her classmates passed with flying colors.

Together with other undergraduates, Brodskaya partnered with the Urban Health Alliance — an organization formed to reduce health disparities and improve the overall health of Jacksonville area residents — to develop a way to break down barriers clients may experience when attempting to participate in programs hosted by the group, such as COVID-19 testing.

But through their research, the team found that a lack of technological skills acted as the greatest obstacle to care.

The Urban Health Alliance and Gator Nursing student team.

“We determined that technology access was a huge obstacle, not just for potential participants, but also in delivering health care from the organization,” Brodskaya said. “As our society becomes more integrated, those who are unaware of how to use technology or who may not have access to devices, such as laptops or resources like the internet, are often put at a disadvantage. We were inspired to empower this population to improve their health outcomes by learning to use their phones and computers as tools.”

Conversation with Urban Health Alliance clients revealed that many patients were unfamiliar with using the internet to participate in alliance-led meetings, access reminder emails or use their electronic health record to view information following an appointment. To improve access to and familiarity with technology, the team created educational materials that could be distributed to patients.

Through handouts, student nurses created a step-by-step guide for clients to walk them through accessing email and appointment follow-up information. One-on-one workshops were also developed between nursing students and patients for individuals who needed additional assistance.

Not only did clients report feeling more confident in their ability following the team’s intervention, Brodskaya’s group believes the experience helped them become better nurses in their future careers. Thanks to this project, they are now able to recognize how innovation is needed when patients lack access to clinic and hospital resources, as well as when social determinants of health, such as education and economic stability, can impact health care quality.

“Empowering clients to take control of their health seemed like the biggest impact we made,” she said. “I hope to make my own patients feel similarly empowered when I implement new ways to improve their well-being.”

This first-time collaboration between Gator Nursing students and the UF Urban Health Alliance also proved promising. Urban Health Alliance manager, Vanessa Jefferson, said the partnership helped further the organization’s mission in a way that benefited students, staff and the Jacksonville area.

“Collaborating with Gator Nursing students was a great experience,” Jefferson said. “The more informed clinicians are about social disparities in the community, the better these challenges can be appropriately addressed. I believe this partnership between clinicians and the community is key to dealing with health inequities.”

Pocket-sized public health

Close to main UF campus, Angel Johnson (BSN 2022) said her experience working with the Alachua County Health Department in Gainesville was critically important to the local community.

After talking with health department officials to determine the most pressing public health issues, Johnson’s team developed a ‘bridge’ program to connect underserved populations with low-cost treatment and testing options for Hepatitis C, an uncurable viral infection spread by contaminated blood that causes liver inflammation and liver disease.

“Hepatitis C is transmitted through risky behaviors, such as needle sharing,” she said. “The county has great new resources that can improve the overall health of the community, but they were not sure how to get the word out and meet individuals where this sensitive activity takes place. That’s why they turned to us, to help with outreach.”

In preparation for an upcoming needle exchange program to be run by the county health department, the team developed syringe labels containing information about newly created hepatitis testing and treatment options. Pocket-sized business cards in English and Spanish with similar information were also created for community members to have easy access to health department resources at all times.

Johnson said these materials were designed to keep health care information top-of-mind for residents and serve as a reminder that services are available every time individuals engage in Hepatitis C risk behaviors. The group’s handouts will enter circulation at the health department in the coming months.

Johnson and her team created syringe stickers and pocket-sized hand outs to spread the word about Hepatitis C testing and treatment information.

“It’s really important for us to target this particular topic,” Johnson said. “We make a real impact, a real change in our communities through helping residents know that there are answers, support and a way to receive treatment for what they are facing.”

Lessons learned

When designing their community projects, some groups were inspired by events they experienced during their time as nursing students. One such team worked with the Florida Department of Health using lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past two years, telehealth services for prenatal care became more common to allow medical professionals to diagnose and treat patients virtually when in-person medical visits were not possible.  To improve health care outreach for underrepresented, at-risk, pregnant women in Duval County, the organization planned to launch a telehealth program to expand this initiative.

Accelerated BSN students on the Jacksonville campus supported the health department by helping design how the telehealth program would take shape. Students researched key elements that would be necessary for its creation, such as potential visit schedules, as well as how remote patient monitoring technologies and applications could be used to connect providers with patients. Their work provided examples of how state-of-the-art technology can be used to support a telehealth program for this vulnerable population.

According to Huffman, their efforts stood out as an example of a real-world innovation that will change countless lives.

“This group was instrumental in helping a vulnerable population have expanded access to quality health care,” Huffman said.  All of these projects have made a lasting impact in the community, as well as for the students. These are just a few examples of how our Gator Nurses Care, Lead and Inspire.”