Nurses make up the backbone of the U.S. healthcare industry. As patient advocates and skilled care providers, the role of nurses has never been more important in meeting the healthcare needs of a growing number of patients.
The approximately 3 million nurses working today make up the backbone of the U.S. healthcare industry and are the largest single profession within the field. However, with an increasing population of patients in need of more care than ever before, there is still a nursing shortfall that must be overcome. Consistently ranked the most trusted profession in America year after year, nurses play an increasingly large role in providing care as well as in the administrative side of healthcare.
As nurses take on more responsibilities, this blog post will discuss the role of nursing to answer the question, “Why are nurses important in healthcare?”
Most recently, the demands of an increasingly complex healthcare industry have meant that in this new landscape the role of nurses has changed, and those who hold a bachelor’s degree are best equipped to act as care providers and patient advocates. Increasingly, employers are recognizing that Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree-holders are the most qualified individuals to meet the growing need for nurses nationwide.
To meet these demands, Mercer University offers the Second Degree Accelerated BSN track to provide a pathway for individuals with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree to become a nurse sooner than completing a traditional two-year program.
The Role of Nurses in Modern Healthcare
Nurses have long delivered a high standard of care to the general public. Professional respect within the medical community, however, was hard-won through years of lobbying, organizing, and most importantly, advancing the profession academically. Whereas nurses 70 years ago were viewed as less integral members of a clinical care team (despite their many responsibilities), nurses have fought for more recognition and today command much more respect and autonomy, enjoying an increasingly collaborative relationship with physicians and other healthcare professionals.
To understand why nurses are so important in healthcare today, we need to look at what a registered nurse does — from the relationships they foster with patients to the ways in which they work with other practitioners.
Nurses Spend More Time with Patients
Think back to a recent doctor’s appointment. After you checked in at the front desk, chances are a nurse was the first person you saw. Between asking about your health and checking your vitals, he or she probably made what seemed like small talk. That small talk, however, was not just to put you at ease or avoid silence.
Skilled nurses know that taking the time to get to know patients can be extremely helpful in uncovering important health information — information patients might not offer up otherwise. After the doctor saw you, the nurse likely returned to talk through any medications the doctor prescribed and to ask if you had any additional questions before helping you check out.
The time nurses spend with patients in the hospital is even greater. In a recent study of the time intensive care patients spent with at least one healthcare practitioner, around 86% of that time was with nurses, compared to just 13% with physicians. In the case of overnight hospital stays, the time spent with nurses was even greater.
Nurses as Patient Advocates
The time nurses spend with patients also provides them with unique insights into their patients’ wants and needs, behaviors, health habits, and concerns, thus making them important advocates in their care. In fact, the American Nurses Association lists advocacy as a “pillar of nursing” and considers it one of the most significant reasons why nurses are important in healthcare.
The advocacy role of a nurse can take many forms, too. For example, in speaking with a patient’s family member, a nurse might uncover an important detail that was not reflected in the patient’s charts and relay this to the healthcare team. Or a nurse might have concerns that a medication is not working as expected and call the pharmacist to talk through it.
Patient advocacy might also mean helping coordinate a patient’s care with another provider’s office or making sure that a patient has provided informed consent prior to undergoing a procedure.
Education as a Critical Function of Nursing
A challenge felt across the U.S. healthcare industry is low health literacy among healthcare populations. Health literacy is one’s ability to understand basic health information to make informed decisions.
Part of what makes doctors so good at what they do — their deep scientific knowledge of the field of medicine — can be challenging to communicate when it comes to discussing complex medical terminology with patients. Not to mention, some patients may feel intimidated by the medical community or not understand what questions to ask.
In their work, nurses devote a lot of their time and energy to educating patients. This could mean helping them understand a treatment or procedure, describing medications and side effects, emphasizing the importance of proper nutrition and good hygiene, or explaining how a clinic operates (in the case of ongoing treatment).
Nurses and their Role in Monitoring Patients’ Health
There can be no mention of the role of nurses in today’s complex healthcare environment without discussing the monitoring of patients’ care and keeping of records. Previously we discussed nurses’ role on the front lines of care. While physicians and other members of the care team also check on patients, it is nurses who monitor their condition day in and day out.
In assessing patients, nurses chart everything from patients’ vital signs and reasons for visiting, to their likelihood of falling (referred to as a “fall risk score”) and current medications. Then they summarize these assessments, update patients’ permanent medical records, and apply corresponding charges (a function of billing). In fact, nurses spend a fair amount of time updating records and communicating pertinent information to the larger care team.
Nurses Today Have Greater Autonomy Than You Might Think
Reading about the nursing profession, no doubt you have heard that nurses today have a greater degree of autonomy than in the past. What exactly does this mean? Especially in the case of hospital stays, nurses are often the first to uncover a problem, and while notifying the attending physician is standard protocol, there are times when nurses must act immediately to stabilize the patient.
In other cases, as part of the order set, a physician may spell out instances when a nurse can act without seeking permission from the doctor. (For example, if a patient’s magnesium levels drop to a specified level, the nurse may give the patient magnesium without consulting the doctor.)
This autonomy requires nurses to have a thorough understanding of their scope of practice, as well as collaborative, trusting relationships with physicians and other key members of the care team. It is also why so many hospitals hire nurses with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.
Want to Join the Ranks of the Most Trusted Professionals in America?
If the role of nurses appeals to you, and if you already hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, a rewarding career in nursing could be closer than you think, thanks to Mercer University’s Accelerated BSN (ABSN) track in Atlanta, Georgia. Our second-degree nursing program makes it possible to earn your BSN degree in as few as 12 months through a combination of online coursework, hands-on labs at our high-tech learning site, and clinical rotations at top local healthcare facilities.
Speak with an enrollment counselor today to find out if Mercer University’s second degree ABSN program is right for you.