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Nursing students’ beliefs about poverty and health


  • Linda I. Reutter PhD RN,

  • Wendy Sword PhD RN,

  • Donna Meagher-Stewart PhD RN,

  • Elizabeth Rideout PhD RN

Linda Reutter, Faculty of Nursing, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2G3, Canada.


Purpose.  This paper examines baccalaureate nursing students’ beliefs about the relationship between poverty and health, and the factors that influence these beliefs.

Background.  The relationship between poverty and health is well established, and poverty remains a persistent problem in many industrialized nations. Nurses’ understanding of how poverty influences health will affect how they interact with individual clients as well as the strategies they employ to address poverty-related issues. No studies have examined nursing students’ understandings of how poverty influences health and the factors that influence that understanding.

Methods.  A cross-sectional survey of a random sample (n = 740) of basic baccalaureate nursing students was conducted in three Canadian universities in 2000. Students completed a 59-item questionnaire eliciting data on demographic variables, personal and educational exposure to poverty, beliefs about the relationship between poverty and health (myth, drift, behavioural, structural), and attitudes to poverty.

Results.  Students were most likely to adhere to a structural explanation of the relationship between poverty and health. Very little of the variance in myth and drift explanations was accounted for by course or personal exposure, programme level, age, and attitudes toward poverty. Greater course exposure and more positive attitudes toward the poor predicted support for the structural explanation. Support for the behavioural explanation was influenced by attitudes toward the poor and, to a lesser extent, by course exposure, age, and programme level.

Conclusion.  Students would benefit from greater exposure to poverty through coursework that emphasizes the structural factors contributing to poverty and its negative health consequences. Classroom experience should be complemented with clinical placements that provide students with opportunities to interact with families living in poverty and to work collaboratively with others to address the causes and consequences of poverty at community and policy levels.

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