Vulnerable populations are groups of individuals who are at a higher risk of experiencing poor health outcomes and lack the resources or capacities to protect themselves. These populations face various challenges, including limited access to healthcare, economic instability, discrimination, and social exclusion. Understanding and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations is essential for promoting equitable healthcare and improving overall health outcomes. This paper compares vulnerable populations and provides an example of one such group, both from the United States and another country. A discussion on why these populations are designated as vulnerable, the specific challenges they face, their inability to advocate for themselves, the ethical issues involved, and the potential benefits of nursing advocacy is also included.
Comparing Vulnerable Populations
Vulnerable populations can be categorized based on various factors, including age, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, and geographic location. Each group faces unique challenges and requires specific interventions to address their health inequities. Some common vulnerable populations include children, older adults, individuals experiencing homelessness, racial/ethnic minorities, individuals with disabilities, and refugees/migrants.
In the United States, children are considered a vulnerable population due to their physical, cognitive, and emotional development needs. Approximately 73.7 million children under the age of 18 reside in the United States, making up approximately 22% of the population (United States Census Bureau, 2021). Some specific challenges faced by children include inadequate nutrition, lack of access to quality healthcare, exposure to violence, and poverty. Many children also experience educational disparities, which can have long-term negative effects on their health outcomes.
Similar to children, older adults in the United States are also considered vulnerable due to age-related physiological changes, increased prevalence of chronic conditions, and social isolation. According to the United States Census Bureau (2021), there were approximately 52 million adults aged 65 and older in 2018, accounting for around 16% of the population. Older adults face challenges such as limited mobility, cognitive decline, financial constraints, and ageism. These factors contribute to a higher risk of falls, chronic diseases, depression, and social isolation among this population.
Individuals Experiencing Homelessness
Individuals experiencing homelessness are another vulnerable population in the United States. Official estimates suggest that on any given night, approximately 550,000 individuals experience homelessness in the country (HUD Exchange, 2021). However, this number may underestimate the true extent of homelessness due to challenges in data collection. Homeless individuals face numerous challenges, including lack of stable housing, access to healthcare, mental health issues, substance abuse, and violence victimization. They often struggle with meeting their basic needs and experience high rates of morbidity and mortality.
Racial/ethnic minorities face disproportionate health inequities and are considered vulnerable populations in the United States. For example, African Americans have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, and infant mortality compared to their white counterparts (CDC, 2020). Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans also face numerous health disparities, including higher rates of certain chronic diseases and lower access to healthcare services. The challenges faced by racial/ethnic minorities are rooted in systemic racism, discrimination, and socioeconomic disparities.
Outside the United States, an example of a vulnerable population can be found in the Syrian refugee population in Jordan. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, millions of Syrians have been displaced from their homes and sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Jordan. As of 2020, more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees resided in Jordan, although the actual number might be higher (UNHCR, 2020). Syrian refugees face multiple challenges, including limited access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. They also experience social exclusion, language barriers, discrimination, and trauma related to the conflict and displacement.
Designation as Vulnerable and Ethical Issues
The designation of these populations as vulnerable is based on their increased susceptibility to poor health outcomes and the numerous challenges they face. Factors such as age, socioeconomic status, discrimination, and lack of access to resources contribute to their vulnerability. For example, children are deemed vulnerable because they are dependent on others for their well-being and lack the agency to advocate for themselves effectively. Older adults may experience physical and cognitive decline and are often marginalized due to ageism. Individuals experiencing homelessness lack stable housing and the resources needed to meet their basic needs. Racial/ethnic minorities face systemic inequalities and discrimination that impact their health outcomes. Refugees/migrants often experience forced displacement and are exposed to various physical and emotional health risks.
Working with vulnerable populations raises ethical considerations, including maintaining privacy and confidentiality, ensuring informed consent, respecting cultural beliefs and values, and addressing power imbalances. Vulnerable populations may be more susceptible to exploitation, coercion, and the infringement of their rights. It is essential for healthcare professionals to uphold ethical principles, promote social justice, and prioritize the well-being of these populations in their practice.
Nursing Advocacy and Benefit
Nursing advocacy is crucial in addressing the unique needs of vulnerable populations. Nurses can serve as advocates by raising awareness, promoting equitable access to healthcare services, and empowering individuals or communities to voice their concerns and needs. Advocacy efforts can involve legislative action, policy development, community organizing, and direct patient care. By advocating for vulnerable populations, nurses can help reduce health disparities, improve healthcare outcomes, and promote social justice.
Vulnerable populations face various challenges that impact their health outcomes and well-being. Children, older adults, individuals experiencing homelessness, racial/ethnic minorities, and refugees/migrants are examples of such populations. These groups are designated as vulnerable due to factors such as age, socioeconomic status, discrimination, and lack of access to resources. Ethical considerations must be taken into account when working with vulnerable populations, ensuring the protection of their rights and well-being. Nursing advocacy plays a vital role in addressing the unique challenges faced by these populations and promoting equitable healthcare. By understanding the specific needs of vulnerable populations and advocating for their rights, nurses can contribute to improved health outcomes and a more equitable society.