The truth about nurses

It’s National Nurses Week this week, which means gratitude, a few days of attention and maybe some free cookies for the hard-working individuals who make up the American nursing profession.

Only I can’t quite get on board with the feel-good fuzziness that tends to accompany this annual celebration, because many nurses aren’t feeling the love these days. They’re overwhelmed, tired and angry – overwhelmed and tired with the workload and constant pressure, and angry at the persistent gap between how they’re so often perceived as handmaidens and pillow-fluffers and how much they actually do.

What other category of health professionals would be expected to put up with the likes of a recent NBA halftime show featuring the Mavericks Dancers gyrating in skimpy “nurse” costumes? Or sexy pseudo-nurses in heels and red lingerie appearing on TV with Dr. Oz to illustrate exercises for weight loss?

According to the venerable Gallup Poll, nursing consistently ranks as one of the most trusted professions in America. But it seems we often have trouble connecting the word “nurse” to the word “professional”, and it shows in how nurses are often portrayed in popular culture and even in how they’re treated by patients, families and employers.

There’s some provocative research on how the role of nurses in health care is often influenced by inaccurate or incomplete images of who they are and what they do. One study that analyzed the websites of 50 leading American hospitals found that nurses were mostly invisible. Another study ties a nursing shortage to the lack of attention they receive in the media.

The truth about nurses?

- There are some 3 million licensed registered nurses in the United States.

- Nurses are trained. About one-third of RNs hold four-year bachelor’s degrees or graduate degrees and about one in five holds an additional academic degree.

- Increasingly, nurses are gaining advanced practice degrees as nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, midwives and certified registered nurse anesthetists. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, about half of RNs had a bachelor’s degree or higher. More than 600 million patient visits are made annually to nurse practitioners.

- While more than half of nurses work in hospital settings, they can also be found in nursing homes, medical clinics, ambulatory care centers, community health centers, schools and retail clinics. Nurses also provide care at camps, homeless shelters, prisons and in the military.

- About 12 percent of nurses with master’s degrees work as academic educators.

- The nursing workforce is increasingly diverse. Just under 6 percent of registered nurses in the U.S. are men, 4 percent are African American, 3 percent are Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and just under 2 percent are Latino.

Although it might not always seem like it to nurses who are on the front lines of daily patient care, there are signs their profession is (finally) getting more respect. There’s been some landmark research in recent years by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on how nurses are uniquely qualified to lead efforts to transform care at the bedside.

A number of studies have directly linked the role of the nurse to safer, better care for patients and better outcomes. And a major new initiative by the national Institute of Medicine calls for more development of the nurse workforce of the future, with an emphasis on more education and training, allowing nurses to practice at the full extent of their license and giving them full partnership – along with physicians and other health professionals – in redesigning the U.S. health care system.

A nurse might fluff your pillows if you ask nicely because for most of them, their choice of profession still comes down to a desire to care for others. But it’s time to move past the limited, inaccurate stereotypes and embrace the truth about nursing – that nurses are, and are capable of, being key players in health care and that they deserve full inclusion.

Sources: American Nurses Association; American Association of Colleges of Nursing; Minority Nurse; The Truth About Nursing.

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