Pam Koehler, Sarah Gimbel

Faculty Friday: Pam Kohler & Sarah Gimbel

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From Ebola and Zika to malaria and dengue fever, there seems to be a global health crisis around every corner.

If you haven’t witnessed an outbreak in person, you’ve seen the images on TV: Patients struggle to survive, doctors cross borders to treat them, and researchers rush to develop vaccines.

But there’s a tireless group of frontline caregivers that often get overlooked — both by daily news coverage and high-level decision-makers.

“When you think about global health, the vast majority of care is provided by nurses,” said Sarah Gimbel, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing. “When nurses are more involved and have more power to make decisions, health care improves.”

In January, Gimbel joined Assistant Professor Pam Kohler as a co-director of the UW School of Nursing Center for Global Health Nursing. The center pushes for the voices of nurses to be included in global health conversations. “To have a seat at that table,” Gimbel said.

“We want to promote and communicate the role of nurses in global health,” added Kohler. “They aren’t always empowered to speak on behalf of the patient or on behalf of their profession.”

The Center for Global Health Nursing, which officially launched on March 10, will bring researchers together for new collaborations and support the expansive work that’s already being done at the School of Nursing.

Professor Ardith Doorenbos, for example, studies pain management in Thailand and Japan, and breast cancer research by Professor Frances Marcus Lewis has made its way to Turkey and Russia. Both Gimbel and Kohler have spent time researching HIV treatment in developing countries, from South America to South Africa.

Gimbel ran HIV/AIDS programs in Mozambique before joining UW’s Department of Global Health in 2009. Kohler worked as a nurse while earning her master’s in public health from UW. “I’d go to biostatistics in the morning,” she recalled, “and then in the afternoon I would walk down the hallway and go to the emergency department.”

The center will support nursing students who want to learn and serve overseas, as well as international students who want to study at the UW. Likewise, a global health perspective allows nurses from the U.S. and abroad to learn from one another. “When we say ‘global,’” Gimbel said, “we’re talking about health that transcends borders.”

That’s why the center will also focus on health issues in the Pacific Northwest, working with local, immigrant, and tribal communities.

The role of nurses will continue to expand as health care needs change. Despite the global health scares of viruses like Ebola and Zika, chronic conditions like cancer and cardiovascular disease are now the primary cause of mortality around the world, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

“It’s not infectious diseases anymore, and that’s a shift,” Gimbel said. “Who provides the vast majority of care for chronic illness? Nurses.”

Yet, health care clinics in many countries still primarily focus on providing acute care. How will they transition to a system that takes care of people with long-term ailments? That’s just one of the many issues that the Center for Global Health Nursing hopes to address.

Gimbel has a B.A. from Kenyon College, an M.A. from the School of International Training, and a B.S.N, M.P.H., and Ph.D. from the UW. Kohler has a B.S.N. from Johns Hopkins University and an M.P.H. and Ph.D. from the UW.