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“The future looks bright. Nurses aren’t just in hospitals or long-term care. We’re everywhere. I know nurses who work at NASA. I know nurses who own their own businesses. There’s a whole world of nursing, and it’s a great and honorable profession.”
Dr. Ernest Grant, President of the American Nurses Association (ANA)
This May is National Nurses Month, a time to reflect upon the crucial role that nurses play in the American healthcare system. The nation’s more than four million registered nurses (RNs) carry out a wide variety of services: performing physical exams, supplying health education, administering medications and personalized interventions, and coordinating care in collaboration with other health professionals.
No matter what capacity they’re deployed in, nurses work to identify and protect the needs of the individual patient; that unifying ethos is one of the reasons why nursing is perennially chosen as one of the nation’s most trusted professions. Nurses are healers, leaders, counselors, advocates, and, especially in light of their work through the Covid-19 pandemic, true heroes. Together, they represent the heart of healthcare in America.
Nursing has evolved significantly in the 21st century. Telemedicine is revolutionizing healthcare access. Advanced practice nurses (APRNs) are reinventing how care is delivered. Evidence-based practice, data-driven research, and cutting-edge technology are all continually redefining what nursing means, and how it’s applied. And as the profession continues to innovate upon itself, it’s also advancing the health of the public through education, policy, and advocacy.
Nearly 200 years ago, the pioneer of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, said that nursing was such a progressive art that to stand still was to go backwards. It’s more true now than ever.
To get a look at nursing today, and where it’s going, read on.
Meet the Expert: Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN
Dr. Ernest Grant is the President of the American Nurses Association (ANA), the nation’s largest nurses organization. He also serves as adjunct faculty for the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill School of Nursing, where he works with undergraduate and graduate nursing students in the classroom and clinical settings.
A distinguished leader, Dr. Grant has more than 30 years of nursing experience, previously serving as the outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. He holds a BSN degree from North Carolina Central University, and MSN and PhD degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Dr. Grant is frequently sought out for his expertise as a clinician and educator. In addition to being a prolific speaker, he has conducted numerous burn-education courses with various branches of the US military in preparation for troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2002, President George W. Bush presented Dr. Grant with a Nurse of the Year Award for his work treating burn victims from the World Trade Center site. In 2013, Dr. Grant received the B.T. Fowler Lifetime Achievement Award from the North Carolina Fire and Life Safety Education Council for making a difference in preventing the devastating effects of fire and burn injuries and deaths within the state. He is the first man to be elected to the office of president at ANA.
The Evolving Role of Nurses
“Nurses have always been on the forefront of healthcare,” Dr. Grant says. “But the role has changed over time. We’ve incorporated evidence-based practice and embraced technology to allow us to provide better care.”
From public health nurses performing wellness visits in Appalachia to midwives delivering children to today’s advanced practice nurses (APRNs) managing acute and chronic illnesses, nursing has undergone several evolutions in a relatively short time. Nursing in the 21st century is essential, multifaceted, and highly technical. But the profession’s themes of compassion, constancy, and commitment to science have been there from the start.
Florence Nightingale and her ideas on nursing rose to prominence after being put into practice in the Crimean War, where, after medical officers had gone to bed for the night, Nightingale would continue to make rounds amongst the sick and injured, earning herself the nickname the “Lady with the Lamp.” Nightingale would eventually become the first woman admitted to the Royal Statistics Society, believing that good data was essential to understanding the impact and effectiveness of treatments. Today’s nurses take a pledge similar to the one created by Nightingale, devoting their life to service and to the high ideals of the profession.
Advocacy Issues for Nurses
“Advocacy is a pillar of nursing,” Dr. Grant says. “As nurses, we advocate all the time: on behalf of our patients, in our workplace, and in our communities. But it’s important that nurses learn that not only are we doing advocacy for the people we’re caring for, and in our community, but also for healthcare legislation and things that are beneficial for all.”
Advocacy in nursing takes on many fronts: raising awareness about the importance of vaccines; lobbying for more equitable healthcare policy; and empowering APRNs to practice to the full extent of their training through full practice authority.
During the Covid-19 crisis, more issues have emerged, such as maintaining an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and mental health services. Each of these advocacy efforts seeks to better equip nurses to provide the care they’re trained to provide to the patients that need it most.
Nurses and the Covid-19 Pandemic
“Nurses rose to meet the challenge when the Covid-19 crisis came to our shore,” Dr. Grant says. “We’ve always been on the forefront of every major health crisis, and this one is no different.”
For the last year, America’s nurses have been fighting a war with the Covid-19 pandemic, and over 500 nurses have lost their lives while caring for Covid-19 patients. It’s in honor of that sacrifice that ANA and others continue to advocate strongly for adequate PPE and mental health services for the nursing workforce, and for the unified voice of nurses everywhere.
“It’s important that nurses be at the table when it comes to planning national health policies, or planning for a future public health crisis,” Dr. Grant says. “We need to sit down and figure out what went right, what went wrong, and how can we be better prepared for the next pandemic?”
One of the biggest successes within the pandemic was the utilization of telehealth services in acute care and long-term care settings. The continued adoption of cutting-edge technology is critical for keeping pace with public health needs and for responding to future health crises. But more needs to be done to support the nurses providing those services; the pandemic has taken a major toll on the profession’s mental health.
The Future of Nursing
On the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic, the American Nurses Foundation (ANF) released a survey of 22,000 nurses, asking them about their experiences over the past year. The survey’s findings showed that the impact on nurses’ mental has been extreme: for early career nurses, 81 percent reported that they were exhausted, 71 percent said they were overwhelmed, and 65 percent reported being anxious and unable to relax.
But nurses are tough. Over 80 percent of nurses say they still have no plans to leave their position. And more help is on the way. Similar to how 9/11 spawned a rush of military enlistments, Dr. Grant expects the pandemic to encourage a new generation of nurses similarly committed to the ideals of service and science. Those nurses will progress the profession just as those who came before them and continue the evolution of trends set in place long ago.
“The future looks bright,” Dr. Grant says. “Nurses aren’t just in hospitals or long-term care. We’re everywhere. I know nurses who work at NASA. I know nurses who own their own businesses. There’s a whole world of nursing, and it’s a great and honorable profession.”
Whether they’re fighting a global pandemic, lobbying for greater healthcare access, or holding a patient’s hand at the bedside, nurses are at the heart of healthcare in America. When it gets dark, nurses hold up the lamp and carry on. Ask a nurse what keeps them nursing and you’ll hear a lot of the same answers: it’s the challenge, it’s the patients, it’s the belief that just one person can make a massive difference.
“Before I became President of ANA, I spent 36 years working in a burn center at UNC Hospitals,” Dr. Grant says. “I enjoyed the challenge of working there. We had both pediatrics and geriatrics. You never knew what you were going to get when the phone rang, if it was just a single admission or if it was multiple admissions. At the end of every day I’d ask myself, did I make a difference in someone else’s life today? Even today, as ANA President, nothing makes me feel more proud to be a nurse than to be able to answer that question with a resounding yes.”
Resources for New and Aspiring Nurses
Nursing is a collaborative profession. For advocacy, continuing education, certification, and networking opportunities, many nurses turn to professional organizations and scientific journals. Connect to the broader nursing community by checking out some of the resources below.
- American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP): With over 118,000 members, AANP is the largest organization for nurse practitioners (NPs). AANP has been a strong voice in advocating for full practice authority for the nation’s advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) and NPs.
- American Nurse Journal: American Nurse is the official, clinically, and career-focused journal of the American Nurses Association (ANA), providing a fresh voice of nursing across America. The printed journal reaches more than 175,000 dedicated nurses in a multitude of specialties and practice settings, and the online site serves nearly four million visitors each year.
- American Nurses Association (ANA): ANA is the premier organization representing the interests of the nation’s four million registered nurses (RNs). Founded in 1896, ANA is the strongest voice for the nursing profession and sits at the forefront of improving the quality of healthcare for all.
- American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC): A subsidiary of ANA, ANCC’s internationally renowned credentialing programs certify and recognize individual nurses in specialty practice areas through targeted exams that incorporate the latest nursing-practice standards.
- The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing (OJIN): OJIN is a peer-reviewed publication that provides a forum for discussion of the issues inherent in current topics of interest to nurses and other health care professionals. OJIN presents different views on issues that affect nursing research, education, and practice, thus enabling readers to understand the full complexity of a topic.
Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.