Former Acting Surgeon General Discusses Nursing’s Role in Improving Health Care
By Rosanne Fohn
Rear Admiral Sylvia Trent-Adams, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, understands firsthand social determinants of health. She grew up a member of a minority group in a rural town with limited access to health care.
From April until September 2017, Rear Admiral Trent-Adams served as the acting U.S. Surgeon General, which was the first time a nurse and non-physician was named to that prestigious post.
Last spring while serving as acting Surgeon General, Rear Admiral Trent-Adams spoke at the Fourth Annual Cultural Inclusion Institute Conference, which is sponsored by the School of Nursing’s Cultural Inclusion Institute and its Office of Lifelong Learning.
The Cultural Inclusion Institute was founded by Professor Norma Martinez Rogers, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, who despite humble beginnings growing up in public housing in San Antonio, has overcome many obstacles to attain five academic degrees and enjoy a nearly 40-year career in academic nursing.
In Rear Admiral Trent-Adams’ presentation, “Nursing’s Role in Leading Healthcare Transformation as It Relates to Social Determinants of Health,” she outlined the social determinants of health—the cultural and environmental factors into which individuals are born and are unable to control—and challenged attendees to understand how these factors cause many patients to develop lifelong health challenges. She also encouraged attendees to use this knowledge to advocate for their patients, whether at the bedside or through legislation, to improve health care for all.
Rear Admiral Trent-Adams said social determinants of health include the color of one’s skin, the family into which a person was born, a family’s economic status, growing up without enough healthy food to eat, and a family’s social status.
“These and other factors—such as your access to health care, the quality of education you receive and your family’s stress level in providing for you—help shape your success in life and your health status,” she said. “These determinants often create barriers to an individual’s pathway to a longer, healthier life.”
She challenged those attending the conference to learn more about their patients so they can become better advocates for them, which will help achieve better public health in the United States. Rear Admiral Trent-Adams urged health professionals to embrace lifelong learning, to take advantage of unexpected opportunities, as she has in her career, and to be prepared for opportunities to speak out and make a difference.
“I’ve learned through my experiences that you need to learn about policy to the degree that you know how policies are made and what policies are needed. If you’re not involved and at the table, you’re on the menu,” she said. “To make positive changes, you need to be at the table and on the team.”
“Most patients don’t have a voice unless you give them one,” she added. “You nurses at the bedside see what is working and what is not. Nurses play a key role in advocating for patients.”
Dean Eileen T. Breslin, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, said Rear Admiral Trent-Adams’ achievements as a nurse are a wonderful example to students, graduates and faculty members. “Having her articulate a roadmap for effective policymaking demonstrates that all nurses and health professionals should be involved in empowering health care in our nation.”
Dr. Breslin pointed out that the School of Nursing’s mission, “We make lives better by promoting health as an act of social justice,” shows the school’s commitment to improving the social determinants of health. “This is the DNA of our school because of our outstanding faculty,” she added.