NOBC Nurse Profile: Shirley Orr

Shirley Orr, MHS, APRN, NEA-BC

Executive Director, Association of Public Health Nurses

“When public health is doing its job, no one knows it’s there.” But over the past few months, one of America’s most prominent public health leaders has seen her formerly “invisible” specialty become the topic of the day.

“It’s been a very challenging time, lots of loss and pain and frustrations,” Shirley Orr says about the COVID-19 pandemic. “But it’s really increased awareness of the value and importance of public health as a means to prevent disease, whether chronic or infectious.”

Orr has undergraduate and graduate degrees in both Nursing and Health Services Administration and is a registered RN/APRN with the state of Kansas. As a 2009 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellow, she focused on advancing public health practice, and has since held leadership positions in many local and state and local health departments, universities, institutes, foundations, and organizations.

To date, Orr has assisted approximately 25 states in supporting public health standards and accreditation. The nurse perspective, she says, has always been essential to public health. But in the COVID-19 era of misinformation and doubt, this perspective is needed more than ever.

“Nursing is consistently identified as the most trusted profession,” she explains. “As nurses, we have a tremendous opportunity – and also an obligation – to provide clear information that’s truthful and understandable to the public.”

“When there are things circulating in the media that may not be accurate, and might even be harmful, we can take that opportunity to explain what we know to be the real story. Even if we don’t always have all of the answers.”

Because COVID-19 is a disease we’re still learning about, she feels it’s perfectly fine to say that we don’t have all the information yet. “But we can say ‘here is what we know is effective, here’s what we know is not effective,’” she tells us. “We want to remind the public that it’s a changing situation and it’s important to stay abreast of what’s happening.”

Orr also stresses the importance of competence, courage, and hope. “There is too much bad news,” she says about the pandemic. “If everything people hear is negative, they tend to curl up in a ball, or rebel. After a point, they don’t want to listen anymore.”

But how do you get the public listen – and comply with orders – when good news is scarce? It takes strong leaders who can work effectively with scientists and health experts, and let their expertise guide their decisions. She has praise for Washington, California, Ohio, and her home state of Kansas – especially Governor Laura Kelly, who after her election in 2018 appointed Dr. Lee Norman as their new state health officer.

“(Governor Kelly) was harshly criticized when she closed the public schools, which she did fairly early on.” Kansas was the first state in the nation to end in-person classes, which took effect March 17. Though she took a lot of heat, the decision proved a wise one.

In press conferences, Governor Kelly made a point of sitting side by side with Dr. Norman, a move that helped establish trust – and flatten the curve.

“It was a positive example. It showed the public we are working together and sharing what we know openly and honestly. I think that does a tremendous amount to help ease their fears and concerns.”

This article is part of our ongoing partnership with the Nurses on Boards Coalition (NOBC), formed to improve the nation’s health through the service of nurses on boards, commissions, and other decision-making entities. NOBC wants to see nurses occupy at least 10,000 board seats in 2020. Scrubs Magazine is committed to helping NOBC reach this goal by informing, educating, and inspiring nurses and nursing students to take on leadership roles at all levels. Find out more at NursesOnBoardsCoalition.org.

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