Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Explaining What Nurses Do

Just the other day, my wife and I went for a walk with some new friends. As we were saying goodbye, one of our friends innocently asked, "So, how many hours do you work at the hospital?" While his question was well-meaning, it once again belied the fact that so many people make wild assumptions about nurses and nursing, and most everyone has little idea what nurses actually do. I've expounded on this topic before here on Digital Doorway, so why not expound some more?

The media has consistently portrayed nurses in relation to hospitals, and this probably has to do with the fact that most people naturally think of a hospital when they picture a nurse in their mind. Having said that, I also assume that many individuals have encountered nurses in schools, home care, nursing homes, workplaces, the military, factories, doctors' offices, legal and medical practices, and a host of other environments. So why do people insist on pigeonholing us into one nice little (hospital-based) box?

At times I find it exasperating, and at other times I simply laugh and truthfully say, "I've never worked in a hospital since I graduated from nursing school!" When I've made this statement in the past, I've often been met with an incredulous glance followed by a look of confusion and questions such as, "So, what do you do, then?" If my earnest interlocutor seems authentically interested, I might choose to wax poetic about my previous work in hospice, home care, public health, nursing education, community health nursing and case management, or I might take a stab at describing my role as a nurse blogger, professional nurse writer, and nurse coach. My conversational companion's confusion can sometimes lessen at this point, but it can also deepen instead.

I love educating people about what nurses do, especially when they sincerely want to know. If an individual is mired in the belief that nurses work in hospitals and doctors' offices and can't seem to stomach the notion of a nurse being an entrepreneur or innovator, I don't necessarily pursue the conversation further.

As nursing matures into the 21st century, nurse entrepreneurship will only continue to grow, and the public will eventually need to understand that nurses can work in a wide variety of environments, many of which are a far cry from the hospital floor. Hospital-based nurses are certainly the largest segment of the American nursing population---and possibly the nursing population worldwide---but nurses are branching out and expanding what it means to be a nurse, and the hospital is just one of many places where nurses can be found.

I don't think my new friend really understands what I do yet, but since he asked just as I was getting out of his car, I couldn't really explain without asking him to roll down his window, turn off the engine, and hear about the many things that I do under the mantle of "nurse".  He may or may not ask again, but that's fine with me. I know in my heart that my nursing is just as valid as the nursing done on a hospital floor. It's different, and my entrepreneurial endeavors are still seen as outside the box by many, but I'm thrilled with my multifaceted nursing identity, and I'm happy to share my vision of nursing in the 21st century with anyone willing to listen.

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