Street nurses have network to share experiences, resources

By FHS Advancement, May 20, 2008

Every day, street nurses throughout Ontario talk with the homeless.

Most often, they work in isolation, meeting street people -- many with urgent acute and chronic health problems -- on park benches, in vacant lots and emergency shelters.

Until now, there's been a dearth of reliable information on nursing care of the homeless to which they could turn when unexpected problems crop up.

That is changing. Ontario's first website dedicated to the needs of street nurses is being launched today at streetnursing.mcmaster.ca/.

The innovative website has been developed by researchers at McMaster University's School of Nursing in partnership with the Hamilton Shelter Health Network and Ottawa Inner City Health Inc.

Through this interactive Virtual Community of Practice (VCoP), nurses who work with the homeless now have a secure website where they can share common interests and explore issues or concerns.

It's here where they can share their failures and successes, keep abreast of health alerts such as emerging infectious diseases, engage in political advocacy, share resources, and keep up-to-date on relevant news and events while promoting best practices and excellence in nursing.

It's also a site where novice nurses can learn from the mentorship of more seasoned nurses.

Dyanne Semogas, assistant professor in the nursing school and director of the Claremont House, managed alcohol program, led the research with Ruta Valaitis, associate professor and the Dorothy C. Hall Chair in Primary Health Care Nursing at McMaster.

"The health needs of the homeless population are complex and their mortality rates (at 45 to 50 years of age ) are startling," said Semogas.

However, Valaitis said such tragic health outcomes can improve if street nurses can increase their knowledge and incorporate the best practices of evidence-based care into their work.

There are 120 street nurses in Ontario who are members of the Street Health Network, but more may be working in both urban and rural areas as communities such as North Bay and Thunder Bay are developing official programs for the homeless.

The development of the site was supported by a $100,000 grant from the Change Foundation, a health policy think tank dedicated to research, analysis and informed public discussion on key and emerging health system issues.