May 30, 1997

New parish nursing program puts health education in the news

New parish nursing program puts health education in the news

A concept proven effective elsewhere in the country is making its debut in Middle Tennessee thanks to a cooperative effort sponsored by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the McKendree Village Retirement Community.

Parish nursing, developed in the early 1980s, puts a nurse into a church congregation to provide health education, health counseling and to work with church volunteers to help parishioners access health care resources.

"It integrates spirituality with health care," said Sharon Adkins, R.N., M.S.N., coordinator of the Center for Parish Nursing and Health Ministries at VUMC.

"The primary focus is not hands-on nursing, but keeping people healthy and helping them maintain wellness. It sounds like an old-fashioned kind of idea, but it's really cutting-edge in today's health care environment. We're focusing on keeping people well and that is really part of the concept of what churches are called on to do."

The nurses will not provide treatment. But they will help fill a gap that is often ignored ‹ providing education and helping people access community resources.

"The parish nurse will have the ability to sit down and listen to people and to identify health care issues and problems before they get to be large issues and problems."

The joint endeavor between VUMC and McKendree is supported by both institutions.

As part of the parish nursing program, a Center for Parish Nursing and Health Ministries has been formed to work with individual Nashville area congregations to determine particular needs.

The center can help the church establish the program within the congregation by helping place nurses and providing initial training and ongoing professional development for parish nurses and health ministers.

Monthly support meetings will also be provided by the center.

Adkins said the program can be individualized for churches.

"Some churches will be able to hire a parish nurse on a salaried position. Others will be looking for someone to do it as an unpaid professional."

Adkins and Gary Brock, VUMC's director of Pastoral Services, have sent letters to various religious leaders in Nashville and will be presenting an introductory meeting in June.

Also participating in the planning of this program from Vanderbilt were Adrienne Ames, associate director of Patient Care Services for Vanderbilt University Hospital; Donald E. Hancock, assistant vice-chancellor for Vanderbilt Health Services; and Beth Brooking, assistant professor of the Practice of Nursing.

"I'm excited about the possibilities," Adkins said. "I think there is the possibility for a tremendous amount of impact that can be made on the health of congregations and communities. We're not just talking about the geriatric population, but about health education that ranges from prenatal education to new-mother education to childhood health issues, teenage adolescent issues and all the way through the elderly population."

The parish nurse's task may be as simple as helping an elderly parishioner adapt to his or her home environment.

"A colleague of mine visited a parishioner recently who was concerned he would have to go to a nursing home because he had trouble getting up and down steps to his bed on the second floor," Adkins said.

"She helped him figure out a way to turn his living room, on the first floor, into his bedroom. She made a difference in this man's life."

Adkins said the program will also play a role in VUMC's educational mission.

"As the program develops, there may be an opportunity here for community health education and the ability of nursing students to get some real first-hand experiences. Nurses have always known that health care needs to be holistic, that the mind, body and spirit need to be addressed in a holistic way. Parish nursing is an opportunity to put that into practice.