Journal of Professional Nursing

Public Health Nurses in New Zealand: The Impact of Invisibility

Jill Clendon, BA, RCpN, MPhil (Hons), MCNA(NZ) Lecturer, School of Health Sciences, Massey University at Albany
Karen McBride, BScN, PGradDip HP, MN, MCNA(NZ) Lecturer, School of Health Sciences, Massey University at Albany

Reference:  Clendon, J. & McBride, K. (2001). Public Health Nurses in New Zealand: The impact of invisibility. Nursing Praxis in New Zealand, (17)2, 24-32.


Public health nurses have provided care to individuals, families and communities in New Zealand since the early 1920s. This research study examined the role of the public health nurse. Utilising community needs analysis method, 17 key informants and two focus groups were asked questions to determine perceptions of the public health nurse. Findings indicated that participants lacked knowledge regarding the role of the public health nurse. Additional findings intimated that participants had difficulty in accessing public health nurse services and that ‘knowing the system’ was beneficial to receiving needed care. One of the major conclusions of this study was that many facets of care managed by public health nurses were invisible to the communities in which they work. Conclusions suggest that public health nurses need to enhance their service by improving accessibility to services and promoting their service in a more visible manner.  

Public health nurses, ‘knowing the system’, invisibility   

The origins of public health nursing and the public health nurse (PHN) in New Zealand extend back as far as the 1920s. In 1924 all nurses were seen as having some type of public health role, but by 1929 there was a growing recognition that public health nursing was a specialty all of its own (Wood, 1999). PHNs were seen as having a role in maternal and infant health, school nursing, Tuberculosis and Venereal Disease Clinics, industrial nursing, and rural and native health nursing (Wood, 1999). Despite continuing to focus on these areas of health delivery, in more recent times PHNs have, increasingly specialised in particular positions. This ‘new-look’ PHN concentrates on only one area of public health nursing, for example, adolescent health, early childhood health, school health, sexual health or communicable disease. This study focuses specifically on the realm of the public health nurse working with schoolaged children (5 to 10 years) within an urban area of New Zealand’s North Island.

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