In Population Health Nursing, a third-semester course in the UTMB School of Nursing BSN curriculum, the students are afforded real-world experiences that also benefit the communities we serve.

Each semester, Population Health faculty members team up with community partners to assess the needs of whole populations and allow students to gain meaningful nursing experiences in a diverse range of settings.

Dr. Annalyn DeMello, assistant professor in the Department of Undergraduate Studies, worked in community health for years, prior to becoming a nurse. While hospital and clinic nursing addresses treatment of a disease or injury, community health and population health aims to prevent disease and injury from occurring or becoming worse, she says.

Furthermore, to improve health and to prevent disease and injury, we need to engage whole communities. A person's health is affected and can be modified by their behaviors, people around them, communities, and overarching systems. To treat a person and those in their 'population,' we need to understand the communities they live in. This includes understanding their barriers, facilitators, attitudes, and preferences for change, DeMello said.

This summer, DeMello coordinated initiatives with YMCA Camp Cullen and Galveston Central Church for her Population Health students.

At Camp Cullen – a summer camp at Lake Livingston where youth enjoy sports, water activities, arts and crafts, and education – nursing students performed critical functions to support a safe camp environment.

We spent the week performing our nursing skills in assessment and treatment of camp injuries, such as stings, sprains, splinters, stomachaches, and administering medications. Other objectives included helping kids through homesickness and camp counselors through compassion fatigue, commonly known as burnout, DeMello said.

Joy Gooden, one of the students who participated at Camp Cullen, appreciated the opportunity to apply not only the technical nursing skills she has learned, but also her communication skills in a therapeutic way.

I was able to build positive and effective relationships with the staff, counselors, and campers. They felt comfortable confiding in me, and I was able to provide purposeful solutions to help the day flow more efficiently, Gooden said.

At Galveston Central Church, which provides significant support to Galveston’s homeless population, DeMello’s students engaged in an eight-week interprofessional initiative to provide health services to community members, including assessments, foot care, lab draws, dentistry, social work, and physician consultations.

As a supplement to the Central Church initiative, nursing students took part in a week-long competition with other UTMB students to generate donations for community members in need. Thanks to the support of the UTMB Alumni Association, the School of Medicine’s Vesalius Osler Society, students, faculty, and staff, Galveston community members were given a total of 15 new pairs of shoes, 13 backpacks, 11 pants, 29 reusable water bottles, and 12 boxes of toiletries.

Christen Sadler, assistant professor in the Department of Undergraduate Studies, has also organized opportunities for Population Health students to give back, including a donation drive that yielded more than 4,500 diapers and training pants for the Galveston Diaper Bank. Her students also volunteered for Project CURE, an organization that helps distribute donated medical supplies.

For students like Gooden, these experiences represent more than the fulfillment of a requirement in a class. They present a different, valuable view of how nurses can be effective team members in a multitude of settings and situations.

I have enjoyed Population Health because it has given me the opportunity to reinforce my nursing skills and knowledge outside of the hospital setting, she said. It has opened my eyes to a different sector of nursing that is equally as important as traditional clinical care.

DeMello emphasizes the importance of students in the course learning how to address the health needs of whole groups of people, not just single individuals.

They learn how to do a needs assessment and develop sustainable interventions with the input of key informants from the targeted population. Really, what we target are social determinants of health, which cuts to the heart of many of today's health problems, DeMello said. Addressing people in their communities, in their homes, and through the larger systems that affect them is how we improve a population's health.

Our 127 summer population health students contributed approximately 1200 hours towards vaccinating the community against COVID-19, over 1524 hours working onsite with and on behalf of specific populations, and 4519 diapers to families in need. We feel proud of this group and excited to launch our fall initiatives next month.