Chances are you’ve seen a nurse in action and know how important nurses are to everyone’s health. The nursing profession has evolved a lot over the last 100 years, growing in professionalism and responsibility. The nursing profession is one of the most trusted professions and is the largest health care occupation in the United States.
The nursing profession has added many important specialties such as Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN, a master’s degree program) which qualifies nurses to work as a clinical nurse specialist or nurse practitioner. A case management nurse cares for patients who need ongoing support to implement a treatment plan that minimizes hospitalizations. Critical care or intensive care nurses work with critically ill or injured patients who must be closely monitored. Other specialties include dialysis nurses (patients who require dialysis to treat kidney disease), geriatric nursing (care and support for elderly patients), mental health nurses, neonatal nurses (care of infants), nurse anesthetist, certified nurse-midwife and oncology nurses (cancer patient care). There are nurses who specialize in obstetrics (births), pediatrics (young children), surgery, orthopedics (bones), occupational health and many others.
All these specialties have key duties in common: to advocate and care for patients and support them through illness or injury to return to health. Always acting in the patient’s best interests, a nurse is responsible for the holistic care of patients, including the patient’s psychological, developmental, cultural and spiritual needs.
Nurses are trained to be keen observers and critical thinkers to understand what is happening to the patient, both physiologically and mentally. Changes in the patient’s symptoms, irregularities in their recovery, and lab tests are crucial pieces of information that lead to effective treatments and successful recovery. Nurses know which symptoms should be expected and which ones indicate a deepening problem or error in diagnosis. Nurses do not make medical diagnoses, but they constantly monitor patient status so they can alert the patient’s physician about a concern, and many times will make recommendations for how to proceed.
But how do nurses actually spend their time? They have been called the “eyes and ears” of health care. That’s a lot of territory. Here are just a few specific examples of the day in the life of a nurse:
- Monitor patient health, check and record vital signs
- Coordinate care under the direction of a physician
- Take detailed health histories
- Listen to patients and analyze their physical and emotional needs
- Administer medications
- Perform diagnostic tests
- Operate complex medical equipment
- Educate patients (and their families) on health conditions, diagnoses, and how to manage their illness or chronic condition after they leave the hospital or progress through the steps of treatment
- Teach the patient and their family/caregivers how to perform care at home and what to expect, including details about their medications and treatments, helping the patient take control of their own treatment
- Build patient trust. For example, Pediatric nurses must take special care with young patients to explain what is happening in their treatment and gain their trust so medical care is more easily accepted. Building trust in a young, frightened child who needs to have an IV inserted takes time, patience and skill Earning patient trust can eliminate a lot of barriers to healing
- Plan for treatment protocols
- Stay current with new protocols, procedures, treatments, medications, professional and technical skills
- Serve as communicators between patient and the increasingly complex field of medicine by interpreting complex texts or diagnoses into language the patient can understand
- Provide emotional support for everyone in the patient’s room. Family and friends may be going through devastating emotions and these affect the patient’s comfort and recovery
- Serve as the patient’s advocate
- Nurses are sometimes called upon to advocate for patients beyond the health care environment. Removing barriers to patient health can extend far beyond the simple signs and symptoms that caused the patient to seek medical attention. Nurses make connections, for example, with a chaplain, or work with social services to address food insecurity, housing safety or transportation to follow-up appointments.
Even this long list does not reveal the true nature of this essential healing profession. Nurses protect our confidences and listen to our fears and hopes for the future. They see us and care for us at our most vulnerable times, bringing comfort, compassion and understanding. They give us hope for the future and help restore our health. They counsel us to be strong so we may endure the death of a loved one. They are there in the sad times when a loved one dies as well as the joyful birth of a baby.
One nurse described her work this way: “Unlike any other work, nurses are a unique combination of caregiver, scientist, technical specialist, minister and healer. We work with our hands, our brains and our hearts to help people along their journey, at times in their lives when they are most vulnerable.”
Show your appreciation of this amazing, life-giving occupation. Thank a nurse today.