During May and June, we celebrate the care, concern, advocacy and leadership that nurses provide every day. One of the many national observances – National Nurses Week – honors the birthday of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), popularly known as the founder of professional nursing.

What nurses do

Nurses deliver holistic, patient-focused care that ranges from giving medications to evaluating treatment. Nurses care for us when we’re sick or recuperating, and they also help us stay well at preventive care visits and health screenings.

A nurse must also be a decision maker, problem solver and possess the additional skills of active listening, critical thinking and social perceptiveness of patient needs, even unspoken ones.

These dedicated and highly trained women and men protect, promote and optimize the health and abilities of their patients by preventing illness and injury, facilitate healing and alleviate suffering through diagnosis and treatment. A nurse’s assessment includes not only physiological data, but also psychological, sociocultural, spiritual, economic and lifestyle factors as well.

Based on his or her assessment and diagnosis, the nurse sets short- and long-range goals for the patient. Assessment data, diagnosis, and goals are written in the patient’s care plan so access is available to other health professionals caring for the patient. Nursing care follows the patient’s care plan; care is continuously evaluated and the care plan is modified, as needed.

Nurses save lives and money

Because nurses improve patient outcomes, they save money for the whole health care system, as well as reduce patients’ out-of-pocket costs. Research shows that nurses routinely provide patients with more health information than doctors.

Research shows that good nursing care produces lower rates of infections, falls, pressure ulcers, deep vein thrombosis, heart attacks and death. A Gallup Poll study found that the extent to which nurses are engaged at work is the greatest predictor of whether a patient dies or has complications during a hospital stay. “Engaged nurses reduce the number of unexpected deaths and adverse outcomes,” according to Gallup.

Supply and demand gap

Nurses are consistently ranked in the top tier of trusted professions. Gallup Polls over the past 17 years have placed nurses at the top of its Honesty and Ethics Survey (81 to 84 percent) for 16 of those annual surveys. Nurses achieved the highest ranking of any profession.

The gap between supply and demand for nurses continues to widen as increased demands are placed on the U.S. health care system. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says RNs are one of the top 10 occupations with the largest projected job growth over the next decades.

Gallup polling reveals that many nurses are leaving the profession because of “tense working environments, inadequate staffing and inflexible work schedules.” Older nurses are looking specifically for a more relaxed pace and reduced-hour schedules as they transition to retirement. Without these options, many nurses are leaving the profession prematurely.

Studies of nurse retention and turnover reveal that the happiest nurses work in a shared decision-making environment that empowers them to make decisions regarding patient care, workspace design, equipment selection and human resource policies. These factors had a significant impact on nurses’ engagement and their loyalty to the organization.

Studies of successful and effective nurses reveal that great nurses have innate talent that includes empathy, self-confidence and attention to detail. To attract great talent, nurse recruiters are advised to identify potential nursing-school candidates with a gift for empathy and then teach them the necessary skills required of nurses.

Types of nurses

The nursing profession has multiple levels of care, skills, education and responsibility. The path to a nursing career has many options: registered nurse, bachelor of science in nursing, licensed practical nurse, nurse practitioner, advanced practice nurse, nurse manager or administrator, nurse educator, certified nursing assistant or a research program.

Registered nurses (RN) have earned a diploma, associate, or bachelor’s degree in nursing and must pass state board examinations.

RNs often supervise licensed practical nurses (LPNs), orderlies and nursing assistants, but they also provide direct care and make many care decisions. They can practice in all types of settings, and can be responsible for direct care, health promotion and patient counseling and coordinating care with other health care professionals.

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRN) include any RN who has advanced education (at least a master’s degree), knowledge, skills and scope of clinical practice. Other types of APRNs include:

  • Nurse practitioners (NP) – can provide both primary and preventive care services, prescribe medication, and diagnose and treat common minor illnesses and injuries.
  • Certified nurse-midwives – provide well-woman gynecological and low-risk obstetrical care in hospitals, birth centers and homes.
  • Clinical nurse specialists can handle a wide range of physical and mental health problems in many types of health care settings as well as in research, education, consultations and administration.
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists administer more than 65 percent of anesthetics given to patients each year.

Doctoral-prepared nurses have earned a PhD or other doctoral degree, specializing in research, clinical nursing or teaching.

Licensed practical nurses complement the health care team by providing basic and routine care under the direction of an RN, APRN or physician in a variety of settings. They usually have 18 months to two years of training and must pass state boards to renew their license.

LPNs can administer most medications, take vital signs, keep records, perform emergency life-saving techniques like CPR and administer basic care.