Hospitals can be intimidating places. While they offer the promise of care, and hopefully healing, the very fact that you or a loved one has to go there in the first place means there's probably a health issue to be concerned with. Even when the event is celebratory -- such as the birth of a child -- there's often still stress associated with the visit.
That's where nurses make an enormous difference. Not the only difference, to be sure, but more often than not, nurses shoulder the responsibility of making a hospital stay (or emergency) more comfortable. Patricia Donohue, a registered nurse, once called nursing the oldest of arts and the youngest of professions [source: Donohue]. It's a calling that has stayed true to the very origins of the word "nurse."
"The profession of nursing, when you look back historically, evolved out of human need, in response to human need," says Diane Allen, vice president of operations and chief nursing officer at Concord Hospital in New Hampshire. "The word nurse comes from the Latin word 'nutrire,' which means to nourish.
Nurses make up the single largest segment of the health care industry, numbering in the millions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' employment projections, the registered nursing workforce is the top occupation in terms of job growth through 2020. It is expected that the number of employed nurses will grow from 2.74 million in 2010 to 3.45 million in 2020, an increase of 712,000, or 26 percent [source: AACN].
Part of the reason for that growth is that the nursing profession reaches far beyond hospitals. Nurses can be found in incredibly diverse settings, including schools, the military, academic institutions (as educators), management positions and patients' homes. Even within the hospital setting, there are myriad disciplines, including the emergency room, operating room, recovery and unit rooms, and anesthesia.
And should you find yourself at the hospital, it's often a nurse who helps establish the tone of your stay.
5: The Welcome Wagon
For hospitals, nurses are the very public face of a facility. That also holds true for other medical settings, ranging from long-term care facilities to hospice care to home health care. To use a human analogy, doctors may be the head, but nurses are the heart and soul, blending compassion and technical expertise.
"The nurse is, oftentimes, the first person to interact with the patient in a clinical way," says Allen. "They're taking that first assessment, pulling together the patient's story, what's going on with them, why are they here and looking at all the clinical information to start putting the plan of care for that patient together."
Nurses also help set the tone for the patient's stay. And studies show that patients at ease with their surroundings typically respond better to treatment.
"How nurses greet the patient, how they respond to them, plays a big role in helping the patient feel comfortable," says Allen. "We're helping them feel confident that they're going to get the care they need, that someone is going to be watching them, and that no harm is going to come to them."
4: It's Hard Work
The role of a nurse, especially in a hospital setting, can bring a full range of emotions, from the joy of seeing a successful outcome to the excruciating sense of helplessness that can accompany a tragic loss. That's the nature of life and death. Add to that the fact that nurses often see patients at their worst, and it's easy to understand that this is not a job for the faint of heart.
"You have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other people every day," Allen says. "You absolutely change patients' lives, people's lives. It's not going to happen with every patient, but there will be patients you care for who will never forget you, and who are changed because of what you do for them. And, as a nurse, you also become changed by those events. I think that's the gift."
That gift, however, often comes hand-in-hand with sacrifice. Hospital nurses, particularly if a facility is understaffed, often are required to work long hours, at all times of the day -- weekends and holidays, too.
"It's not easy," Allen says. "It's something you've got to be passionate about, and you've got to care about, and you've got to get a lot of fulfillment from it. Otherwise, it's just too hard."
3: Around-the-clock Care
A hospital visit can potentially incorporate many different disciplines throughout the day, including doctors, the pharmacy, nutrition services, physical and occupational therapies. It's the nurse, however, who provides care morning, noon and night -- constantly assessing the patient's condition and needs [source: Allen].
"We're with the patient longer," says Pat Karzouniaris, a registered nurse with Partners Health care at Home. "That's part of the reason why we're put in a different position than physicians. Physicians only have 15 minutes or so for a patient." Nurses, on the other hand, can spend more time with patients -- in homes for a half hour to an hour, and at hospitals, several times during their shift. This extra time often helps patients identify more with a nurse than with a physician.
Nurses aren't the only medical team members that go the extra mile, but they traditionally incorporate that extra effort into their job description.
"When you go into the hospital and you're super sick, you're put on a certain drug regimen by your physician, and then the nurses care for you," says Krysia Hudson, a registered nurse and instructor with the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. "The medical model is to treat and cure at that point in time."
But when that -- or the treatment -- doesn't work, she says, it's often the nurses who detect the subtle signs and symptoms that could indicate an onset of a more serious problem, while taking care not to alarm their patients.
2: They Drive the Information Train
Today's health care environment is exponentially more complex than it was only 50 years ago. That's not a bad thing; it indicates that we know more about the human body, its ailments and how to treat them. But that complexity puts an added burden on nurses, who are the primary facilitators of the information flow between patient and physician.
Yet, nurses consistently live up to their responsibility. "It takes a whole team to make things work," says Hudson. "The current trend in medical and nursing education is to have communication simulation. We're learning to team our medical students with our nursing students and teach them how to talk to one another."
Hudson, who holds a master's degree in informatics -- the study of managing health information -- says nurses play a vital role in communicating critical information to physicians. However, it's not enough that nurses and physicians talk to one another; they have to understand each other.
1: Nurses Advocate for You
The final piece of the puzzle for modern nurses, combining attentiveness and communication, is advocacy. "Nurses improve the patient's quality of life, and help the patients have their voices heard as to what's important to them," says Cheryl Stowe, a registered nurse with Partners Health care at Home.
Hudson recalls one student with an elderly patient who appeared disoriented. The nurse learned that the patient spoke to her daughter and sister every day, and she asked them to remind the patient to drink water every time they talked on the phone.
"With just that one little intervention, by just listening to that patient, she found out what the patient did every day," says Hudson. "And just a week later, the patient wasn't confused any longer. And part of that was they found out she was dehydrated."
The advocacy role also includes educating patients about their individual situation, and encouraging them to be assertive in requesting appropriate care.
"We are the patient's advocate," says Karzouniaris. "We try to make them knowledgeable. Sometimes you have to go the extra mile. It's just part of the job. It's inherent. And it doesn't matter how long it takes. The job needs to be completed."
Lots More Information
- 10 Most Famous Nurses in History
- 5 Things You Didn't Know About Being a Nurse
- 5 Most Challenging Aspects of Being a Nurse
- Allen, Diane R.N. Chief Nursing Officer, Concord Hospital, Concord, N.H. Personal interview. April 19, 2012
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing. "Nursing Shortage." AACN.com. Updated, April 2, 2012 (April 22, 2012) http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/fact-sheets/nursing-shortage
- Donahue, Patricia, PhD, R.N. "Nursing The Finest Art - An Illustrated History." NursingPower.Net (April 22, 2012) http://www.nursingpower.net/nursing/origen.html
- Dreifus, Claudia. "Doctor Leads Quest for Safer Ways to Care for Patients." New York Times. March 8, 2010 (April 21, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/09/science/09conv.html
- Heacock, Sue R.N., MBA. "10 Principles All Great Nurses Follow." NurseTogether.com. (April 21, 2012) http://www.nursetogether.com/Career/Career-Article/itemId/1879/10-Principles-All-Great-Nurses-Follow.aspx
- Hudson, Krysia R.N. Instructor, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. Adjunct professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Medical School, Baltimore, MD. Personal interview. April 18, 2012
- Karzouniaris, PatR.N. Partners Health care at Home. Personal interview. April 24, 2012
- Stowe, Cheryl R.N. Partners Health care at Home. Personal interview. April 24, 2012
- Winter, Ryan. "Top 10 Traits Every Nurse Should Have." Soliant Health. April 6, 2009 (April 18, 2012)