Keep nursing healthy

Published 10:50 pm Thursday, May 28, 2009

By Staff
Kelley Reep
CARY — For the seventh consecutive year, nursing has topped the Gallup Poll list of “Most Honest and Ethical Professions,” higher than clergy, teachers or police. So why are nurses so absent in the news media?
In today’s tightening economy, nursing is still a high-demand field. The rapidly approaching retirement of the baby-boom generation means more patients and fewer nurses, since the majority of nurses are boomers themselves. Why then, if nurses are in such demand, are they so absent in media?
A study in 1997 found that nurses were cited only 3 percent of the time in articles on health-related topics. When nurses were mentioned, it was often only in passing and anonymously; for example, as “Heroine #1” in one article.
More than a decade later, not much has changed.
Television and film continue to portray nurses poorly — the “sexy nurse” and “hapless nurse” seem to be the only two characters available from casting. But more puzzling is the underutilization of nurses as sources for media such as newspapers, magazines and broadcast news programs.
Part of the problem is that while nurses are honest and ethical, they aren’t very good at promoting themselves. For years, much of what they do has been defined rather vaguely as “caring.” Nurses provide “patient care,” but the public doesn’t really know what that encompasses. I must admit that years ago my own skewed perception of nursing was just “B and B:” blood pressures and bedpans.
Then I became a nurse. Nursing is my second career; I graduated five months ago and am now working at a local hospital with cardiac patients. While my immense respect for the profession began in nursing school, it has grown exponentially since joining the ranks. Yes, while we do help with blood pressures and bedpans (as do nurse aides, another group of unsung heroes), registered nurses serve the crucial role of advocate and protector for patients.
Nurses are the first people to see patients in the morning and the last to see them at night. During every interaction, a nurse is assessing the patient’s body systems (brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, circulation, etc.) for subtle changes that could portend a greater crisis. Should such a crisis occur, the nurse must know how to intervene — she or he can be the difference between life and death. Nurses track critical lab values and titrate potent medications that keep vital organs functioning. They educate patients and their families about diagnoses, medications and risk-factor reduction.
Why should you care? Because public perception drives public demand; if people don’t understand the value of a good nurse, they won’t be concerned when, in the current economic climate, health-care administrators decide to replace licensed nurses with less costly unlicensed personnel.
If people don’t understand the value of a good nurse, they won’t ask about nurse-to-patient ratios at their hospitals of choice. They won’t understand that studies have overwhelmingly demonstrated that in hospitals with low nurse staffing levels (high nurse-patient ratios), there are higher rates of poor patient outcomes such as shock, pneumonia, cardiac arrest and urinary-tract infections, all of which cost taxpayers billions of dollars annually.
If people don’t understand the value of a good nurse, they won’t be concerned when interested students can’t enroll in nursing programs because there are not enough nurse educators to teach them.
So, here’s my suggestion: If you are a nurse, educate those around you about the crucial role you play in health care. Speak up when media inaccurately portray your profession.
If you are a journalist, aggressively seek to find nurse sources who can speak authoritatively on the day to day management of chronic diseases, home health, disease prevention and a host of other issues.
If you are a consumer, and a potential patient, ask your hospital about the nurses it hires. Tell the hospital that you are concerned about nurse-to-patient ratios, continuing education and technical skill. Tell your state representative or congressman that funding of nursing programs is crucial to the future of health care. And when seeking health information, look to the most trusted profession in America today — nurses.