Subscribe to our e-newsletter, Nursing Notes

< Back to Nursing Notes Nursing Careers

Nurses Adapt to Meet Global Health Needs

October 2012

According to the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, the term “global health” indicates an area of study, research and practice that places a priority on improving health and achieving equity in health for all people worldwide. As the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, nurses play a critical role in providing life-saving and life-sustaining care across the globe.

In underserved countries and communities, where healthcare services are often limited, nurses are becoming front-line providers in healthcare delivery. In fact, nurses sometimes serve as the sole providers in rural and urban settings abroad, while also playing the role of care promoters, educators and mentors for communities in need.

“Nurses have a unique understanding of how to provide care in complex situations, and can help impact the way care is provided to populations in resource-limited settings,” said Carol Etherington, MSN, RN, FAAN, Associate Director of Community Health Initiatives for the Vanderbilt University Institute for Global Health in Nashville, Tenn.

Pursuing international nursing opportunities starts with the right education. According to Etherington, planning when, where and how to work in global settings is essential. It’s important for nurses to not only understand the requirements for working abroad, but also the conditions and cultural standards of the country where they wish to work.

“It’s important to research the history and dynamics of the country and to take the time to understand the opportunities and resources available,” said Etherington. “Nurses shouldn’t be afraid to ask the questions they want and need to know prior to working in a global setting – especially given that the roles of nurses in other countries are often dramatically different than they are in the U.S.”

For nurses interested in global health, there are thousands of humanitarian relief organizations and government programs that offer a wide range of diverse opportunities for work in international settings. Relief organizations in particular, such as Doctors Without Borders and International Medical Corps, seek clinically experienced nurses and can help them prepare for the realities of working in unique, often stressful circumstances abroad.

“I encourage nurses seeking first-time opportunities abroad to go with an established and respected organization. They have the infrastructure that provides nurses with access to information and resources that assist in the transition to a new environment,” said Etherington. “By working with such organizations, nurses are better prepared for their experiences abroad and can really focus on their role as a care provider.”

When working abroad, it’s especially important for nurses to understand the country’s healthcare system and views towards health, as there are likely to be distinct differences in working conditions and practices when compared to the U.S. In some global settings, nurses may be tasked with obtaining medical histories, administering medications and treatments, and educating patients on their health conditions, among other duties – in other settings, nurses may not be given the authority to do such interventions.

“When applying for opportunities in other countries, nurses should consider the fact that they will have to use their skills and perform day-to-day responsibilities in a setting that may have fewer resources than what they are accustomed to,” said Etherington. “Working in these new and different environments can be challenging, and remembering to be flexible, resourceful and creative can present unique opportunities for nurses to learn new skill sets.”

According to Etherington, there are many different skills that can be exceptionally useful in an international setting, depending on the global health needs at that time. Specialized nurses might work in a conflict area or assist with the care of those affected by a natural disaster, where acute care skills are needed. In most global settings, nurses with basic primary healthcare skills are in high demand to attend to chronic and endemic illnesses.

“International nursing experiences are unique to each circumstance and person, but overall, they provide nurses with a more defined sense of purpose, professionally and personally, and can be very rewarding and humbling ventures,” said Etherington.

For more information about international nursing opportunities, visit

^ Back to top