Improving people’s health while simultaneously keeping down costs is one of the great public policy challenges of our time. One underappreciated approach to achieving this goal is to rely more heavily on nurses, who provide cost-effective, holistic care not just in clinics and hospitals, but also in many other places where Americans live, learn, work and play.

For more than a century, nurses have worked to keep people healthy, venturing out to schools, tenements, remote communities, coal mines, and factory floors. Today’s nurses help employers devise and implement workplace health and safety programs in office settings as well. From an employer’s perspective, it’s good business to apply nurses’ expertise to keeping workers healthy and on the job. Nurses bring a unique professional perspective that makes them well-qualified to lead health-promoting initiatives, and employers and employees are turning to them with increasing frequency.

Nurses’ job-site portfolios can include:

  • Minimizing workplace hazards;
  • Implementing programs to address job and life risks in tandem and to bolster resilience among workers;
  • Increasing access to evidence-based primary care through worksite clinics that provide convenient, low-cost, and efficient care;
  • Rebooting workplace culture through healthy menu choices, walking meetings, and fitness activities;
  • Redesigning benefits to reward prevention and wellness;
  • Measuring the impact of various workplace health initiatives; and
  • Building the business case for investing in the health of communities at large.

School nurses’ roles are similarly broad, and just as underappreciated. Their work today goes far beyond bandaging playground injuries. School nurses help manage the care of children with asthma and diabetes, they combat the spread of communicable diseases, and they provide life-saving interventions. Increasingly, school nurses are also turning their attention to seeing that children have a healthy environment in which to learn—one where nutritious food, opportunities to exercise, and safe places to play are readily available.

Other nurse-powered initiatives target the needs of particular communities. The Phoenix, Arizona, chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, for example, helps Hispanic residents gain health insurance—a gateway to better health for a community suffering from disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and dental disease.

Similarly, a nurse home-visiting program in Durham, North Carolina, has greatly reduced the number of emergency room visits among infants. Meanwhile, nurses in a Camden, New Jersey, program work to connect “superutilizers” of emergency departments to primary care and various other social and emotional supports.

Across the nation, nurses are joining with other clinicians and public health officials, and working in cross-sector collaborations with city planners, social workers, educators, and others to build a Culture of Health that helps people avoid illness and injury. By working to create environments where health can flourish, nurses are demonstrating that they have a key role to play in solving the public policy puzzle that is health and health care.

Ladden is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and executive editor of the Charting Nursing’s Future series, which has recently explored the ways nurses are building a culture of health where Americans live, learn, work, and play.