The history of modern health care contains many stories of the contributions by remarkable women.
Some stories are riddled with challenges. In the 1800s, women like the founder of Red Cross, Clara Barton, often battled chauvinism and discrimination as they tried to provide health care services. However, the persistence of these trailblazing women prevailed — and changed the trajectory of the American medical community.
At the end of the 19th century, a lack of doctors and sparse clinic locations meant the sick and injured had to travel long distances to receive medical services. Concerned by the plight of the poor who had little access to health care, Lillian Wald founded a visiting nurse service in 1893, according to biography.com.
Wald’s accomplishments and dedication inspired women throughout the U.S. Among them was Norma Snow, a philanthropist and president of the Rochester Women’s Club in New Hampshire. In 1913, her organization joined with the Ladies Aide of the First Church Congregational to form a visiting nurse association to provide home health care services in Strafford County in New Hampshire and southern Maine.
Grace Reeds, the Rochester organization’s first visiting nurse, received an annual salary of $750.
Throughout her life, Snow remained active in helping to provide health care services, especially to children and the poor, and she served as chair of the Strafford County Red Cross. In the 1920s, the local Red Cross identified community health nursing as a critical need and provided a car and a part-time assistant for the visiting nurse.
Providing improved health care continued to be a national priority. Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t a doctor or nurse, but the first lady had a significant impact on health care in the U.S. and around the world. Roosevelt was appointed as head of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1948, according to Medical Daily. She believed all people had a fundamental right to quality health care. At the U.N., she helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which specifies every person has a right to medical care and social services.
During the 1950s, visiting nurse associations began providing health care services in schools and at community clinics. In the 1960s, the visiting nurse association founded by Snow was incorporated as the nonprofit Rochester VNA, which continues its work and advocacy today as Cornerstone VNA.
In the 1980s, the medical community was putting more emphasis on shorter hospital stays, which resulted in an increased need for acute in-home health care services for recuperating patients. The demand for health care at home has continued to grow since then, as it has shown to lower hospital readmission rates, reduce health care costs and provide better patient outcomes.
Today’s home health care services often go far beyond simple wellness checks. They encompass clinical specialization, disease management, chronic care management, patient education and community support.
“I think it’s important to also recognize how home care has become even more sophisticated, especially with the use of technology in the home,” said Erika Lee, director of advancement at Cornerstone VNA. “As people are being discharged from the hospital sooner, we’re having to treat more complex patients at home.”
Most recently, advancements in telehealth technology in the home care setting have proven to be effective in treating chronic illnesses and reducing hospital readmissions. With telehealth, nurses are able to monitor patients remotely, video chat and receive immediate alerts when a patient’s vital signs are abnormal. Technology will continue to play a critical role in the future delivery of care at home.
Home health care continues to grow, in part because many people prefer to receive services in their homes whenever possible. As of 2014, there were 12,400 home health care agencies in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, less than 20 percent are nonprofit.