Friday, December 16, 2011

Nurses' Voice, Nurses' Image: Nurses' Power

Since it feels timely to do so, I am choosing to republish a previous blog post from 2009 that I feel is still poignant and worthy of discussion. Here is the post in its entirety, originally published  under the auspices of the nurse blogger scholarship which I received from Value Care, Value Nurses, the nursing arm of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).


I have recently been re-reading From Silence to Voice: What Nurses Know and Must Communicate to the Public, by Bernice Buresh and Suzanne Gordon. What I am most struck by is that nurses still have not necessarily found their collective voice, and despite the media attention given to the global nursing shortage, I still believe that Buresh and Gordon's thesis still holds true: the public still does not fully understand what nurses do, and until that day comes, nurses' real value as clinicians will not be common knowledge.

Buresh and Gordon touch on many themes and areas of interest vis-a-vis nurses and their relation to the public, to doctors, and to one another. While I will not provide a review of the book---nor a comprehensive enumerating of its content---there are certain area which pique my interest, and I encourage curious readers to order a copy of the book and explore some of these issues for themselves.

Doctors Cure, Nurses Care

When I first heard this phrase, I was moderately disturbed by it for several reasons. Doctors, by and large, receive the lion's share of praise and gratitude when a sick patient is cured of an illness. Granted, doctors undergo a great deal of training and education in order to offer curative treatments for a variety of diseases, yet all too often, the work of nurses is grossly overlooked when it comes to successful treatment. While nurses do indeed carry out many orders originated from doctors, nurses use their own brand of critical thinking and autonomous action in order to perform specialized patient care. The public may not be aware of this fact, but many actions taken by nurses are initiated by nurses themselves, and the professional clinical assessments performed by nurses will often lead to changes in treatment and greater overall success.

Sure, nurses care, and nursing is seen by the public as a "caring" profession. However, nurses utilize scientific methods, skilled observation, and keen assessment skills to monitor patients' progress. Nurses are not just "the caring eyes and ears of doctors"---nurses are skilled professionals fully involved in patient care---and patient cures.

The Nurse as Angel, Teddy-Bear, and Child

In their book, Buresh and Gordon make one thing clear: nurses' self-presentation says a great deal to the public, and images of nurses that instill themselves in the societal zeitgeist are difficult to dispel.

Somewhere along the line, the "angels of mercy" moniker became attached to nurses as a group. Granted, in the early days of nursing, nurses' ability to act autonomously was extremely limited, and we were, by and large, the handmaidens of deified doctors. However, as much as that regrettable history has largely changed, the image of the nurse as angel unfortunately persists quite widely in our culture and websites galore promote gifts and baubles that continue to diminish nurses' professionalism. Images such as this one drive home the point: nurses are childlike individuals with starched white hats who love teddy-bears. Adding insult to injury, nurses can actually be depicted as winged angel/teddy-bears, further enforcing the infantilization (and deprofessionalization) of our profession. Would doctors allow themselves to be thus represented to the public?

Rather than being perceived as cherubic angels and childlike creatures, this writer feels that being perceived as the valuable and skilled professionals who we truly are would allow the public to have a much more accurate perception of what we do, and our importance to the care of millions.

The Clothes on Our Back

Nurses' uniforms have certainly changed over the years, and as scrubs have become the norm for nurses in most clinical settings, many companies have capitalized on the popularity of such utilitarian clothing. Now, designer scrubs covered with angels, teddy-bears (there they are again!), and any number of cartoon-like images adorn the hard-working bodies of nurses around the world. If nurses want to be taken seriously by the public---and by doctors and other professionals---how does the wearing of such (in my opinion) unprofessional clothing help our cause?

Picture this: a team meeting occurs midday to discuss a patient on the adult oncology floor. Present at the meeting: a medical resident, a medical student, the attending doctor, the oncologist, two unit nurses, a social worker and a respiratory therapist. Of all of the professionals in the room, who would possibly be wearing pink scrubs covered with teddy-bears and hearts, and a pin on her chest saying "Doctors Cure, Nurses Care"? And what message does this convey about the nurse's self-image and how the other professionals present in the meeting should perceive him or her?

What's in a Name?

In From Silence to Voice, Buresh and Gordon make their case that nurses being addressed by first name only is also a major image problem when it comes to the public's perception of us a collective whole.

When doctors introduce themselves to patients or other professionals, they always do so by using the title "Doctor" before their name. This practice immediately creates an impression that the doctor is a professional, that he or she has a name that should be remembered, and a hierarchy of power and authority is clearly established from the start.

Conversely, we nurses almost ubiquitously introduce ourselves by first name only, ostensibly to break down the barriers between patients and nurses, assisting the patient in overcoming fears and anxieties related to their treatment. While this tactic may have some limited benefit, Buresh and Gordon argue that "if nurses introduce themselves by their first names only, they are asking to be regarded as nonprofessionals because that is the conventional way that nonprofessionals present themselves."

The "first-name only convention", as the authors have named it, makes it significantly more difficult for individual nurses to receive recognition for their work when only their first names are known. It also creates a hierarchical structure in which the doctor stands alone as a figure of authority, towering above the patient and nurse with (patriarchal or matriarchal) power and authority.

Interestingly, many nurses will argue that introducing ourselves as "Nurse Smith" or "Nurse Cadmus" is awkward at best, but also brings to mind the infamous "Nurse Ratched" from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". Granted, Nurse Ratched is a mythic and hated figure in the pantheon of film and modern literature, yet do we see doctors eschewing their well-earned title due to historical figures such as Dr. Kevorkian or Dr. Mengele (of Auschwitz fame)? Absolutely not. Doctors use their title so commonly and so frequently that the word "doctor" simply holds too much cultural power to be diminished by one literary (or real-life) character who used that title for ill.

As for "naming practices" between doctors and nurses themselves, further examples of an unequal playing field emerge, with nurses almost continually subjugated to a diminished status by always being addressed by first name by both patients and doctors, whereas doctors maintain their professionalism and authority through the use of their title and last name.

Taking Credit Where Credit is Due

All too often, the work of nurses is diminished by nurses themselves. When thanked for their work, nurses will frequently say, "Oh, I didn't do much. The doctors really did the hard part." Or when a nurse is asked what he or she does, the answer will often be, "I'm just a nurse." This diminution of nurses' worth does little to cement in the public's collective mind the utter importance---the crucial presence---of nurses in the healthcare system. The "just a nurse" phrase---used all too painfully often---hurts nurses' cultural standing and diminishes the profession in the public's eye.

Nurses need to stand up and take credit for the work that they do. Buresh and Gordon urge nurses to say "You're welcome" when they are thanked. "I am so glad that I could assist you in learning so much about your diabetes, Mr. Smith" or "It was my pleasure to provide your post-operative nursing care, Mrs. Jones"---these are statements that take credit for nurses' actions, acknowledge patients' gratitude, and accept responsibility for providing crucial nursing care that directly impacts patients' recovery and health.

Nurses' Agency

Buresh and Gordon recommend that nurses discover their "voice of agency". According the authors, "the voice of agency is the voice that says: 'I helped the patient to walk after surgery so that she wouldn't get blood clots in her legs' or 'I taught the patient how to take his medications so that they would be effective and produce fewer side effects.' The authors further illustrate their point by reminding us that "the voice of agency is the voice that conveys the message, 'I'm here. I am doing something important.' "

For nurses to develop their own agency---their own power---nurses must first claim and recognize the importance of what they do. As Buresh and Gordon elucidate so clearly in their book, patients do not learn self-care skills in a vacuum. Someone must teach them those skills, and it is nurses who bring their knowledge and education directly to patient care. When recovering from surgery, it isn't doctors who monitor patients every fifteen minutes, using a lifetime's worth of learning to perform important expert assessments. Nurses use a wide variety of skills---often on an autonomous basis---to provide patients with the care and attention they need for optimal health.

While nurses are indeed held in very high esteem by the general public in surveys and polls, most members of that adoring public would be hard pressed to actually describe what it is that nurses do. As Bernice Buresh and Suzanne Gordon make so abundantly clear, it is up to nurses to claim their rightful place of importance in the care provided to patients in a variety of settings. Nurses need to proudly speak of their work with a voice of agency and power, and communicate clearly---to the public, the media, their families, their friends, and their colleagues---that nursing is important, that it is meaningful, and that what nurses do contributes to successful patient care and positive outcomes. We must forgo the teddy-bears, the hearts, the flowers, the useless diminutive statements and self-deprecation, and claim our professionalism for our own.

Nursing's voice must be heard, and Buresh and Gordon feel that the time for that voice to be clearly heard is now.

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