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Exploring an Epidemic’s Meaning from the Perspective of Nursing

An article written almost 30 years ago helps frame social constructs around the COVID-19 pandemic. By reviewing the essay, an historian of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Penn Nursing) extends that construct to include nurses and patients, delivering a local and personal meaning to the epidemic experience.

In an essay in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Julie A. Fairman, PhD, RN, FAAN, Endowed Chair, the Nightingale Professor in Honor of Nursing Veterans, and Professor of Nursing at Penn Nursing, reviews Charles Rosenberg’s 1992 article about the AIDS epidemic. Using Rosenberg’s theme, she further develops the meaning of an epidemic from the nursing perspective.

“Even as we have experienced different kinds of infectious epidemics over the last century (Ebola, AIDS), Rosenberg’s three interrelated stages still help us understand, from a sociological perspective, how society constructs the meaning of epidemics and manages policies, structures, and post-epidemic explanations,” says Fairman. “Asking the question ‘What is an epidemic?’ from the perspective of nurses illustrates how a different cast of expert actors generate meanings that can then be part of a broader understanding of epidemics in general.”

Fairman argues that the meaning of epidemics from the perspective of nurses, their patients, and their history injects a more layered approach to the question. Where Rosenberg wrote from the perspective of the history of medicine with the intent to understand the relationship between social structure, meaning and ideology, Fairman writes from the perspective of nurses and patients.

“A nursing perspective illustrates the construction of the meaning of an epidemic from the experiences of the patient and professional nurse, from the ground up rather than from the top down,” writes Fairman. “It offers different questions exploring the experiences of patients, families, and practitioners, as well as their hopes, expectations, fears, and needs.”

“Epidemics from the Perspective of Professional Nursing: Beyond Germs, Public Health, and Pot Banging” is available online.