The ‘Year of the Nurse’

Nurses face shortages, burnout and a shift in the health care model.
Photo by iStock

The World Health Organization designated 2020 as the “year of the nurse,” in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, who would become the “mother of modern-day nursing.”

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) on engraving from 1873. Celebrated English social reformer, statistician and founder of modern nursing. Engraved by unknown artist and published in ”Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women with Biographies,” USA, 1873.

Since Nightingale’s day, the nursing profession has changed dramatically. The role of nurses continues to be pivotal to patient outcomes and nurses are being asked to do more and more within the realm of patient care. Though nurses are rising to meet these new challenges, they also are facing a staff shortage, burnout and a shifting health care model.

One big difference for nurses is the shift from treating medical conditions to a prevention approach. This requires a very different skill set and different roles within the nursing profession to meet community needs.

“The agenda for the transformation of health care in the United States that began in 2001 has consistently called for the need to reorient our health systems toward illness prevention and health promotion, and for the provision of education for health care professionals necessary to support this transition,” said Dr. Cynthia McCurren, dean and professor for Grand Valley State University’s Kirkhof College of Nursing.

“Attention has also been on the persistence of health inequities — differences in health that are not only unnecessary and avoidable but unfair and unjust as well. Population health is a critical focus, seeking to understand how biological, behavioral, environmental, social and structural factors affect health.

“We have made dismal progress toward achieving this agenda.”

McCurren said she believes COVID-19 might serve as a catalyst for change. “COVID-19 has brought the urgency of this agenda to the forefront. We can no longer fail to act in a decisive manner to address the agenda. We must invest in prevention and health promotion, tackle health inequities and boost health literacy. We must invest in people, in resilience, solidarity and ultimately in the well-being of our society and economy.”

One area of investment that is essential is in training and adequate support for nurses. Renae Potts, RN, assistant professor at Grand Rapids Community College, said nurses are “more autonomous than ever before” and “must have exquisite assessment skills to pick up on subtle changes in their patient’s condition.”

“Nurses must be skilled communicators/collaborators so that they can communicate patient needs with a large interdisciplinary team,” Potts said. “I believe that nurses need to be better at critical thinking than ever before. With medical advances and improvements in technology, nurses must assimilate their patients’ clinical information and determine the best plan of care. Being a life-long learner has never been more important.”

With more emphasis on adopting technology, new approaches to care and health systems that are more focused on finances, nurses can face burnout at a high rate. And, in the coming years as baby boomers age, a nursing shortage is expected. This isn’t news to health care professionals, but how they deal with that reality will be essential to community health.

“For centuries, the nursing profession has fought for adequate staff to provide the highest level of care to our clients. We will need to be creative and innovative in our staffing,” Potts said. “We will need to educate the public on what the reality of nursing is so that those who choose to become nurses are well prepared for both the joys and frustrations. We need to continue to fight for equitable pay.

“I believe one of the most important tasks before us is to show today’s nurses how valuable and appreciated they are so that they do not become burned out and quit. The corona pandemic has shown a spotlight on nurses, but it needs to be more than just ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Employers must create an environment that allows nurses to practice as the outstanding nurses they are.”

Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College are focused on meeting the needs of the health care providers in the area by graduating nurses trained in the skill sets needed for the future.

“Colleges work closely with local hospitals/long term care/rehabilitation centers to make sure our education meets what will be expected of our nurses after they graduate,” Potts said. “We have well-equipped skills labs so students can practice with real equipment. In addition, we have an outstanding Simulation Lab where students can practice being a nurse in real life scenarios with high fidelity mannequins.”

McCurren said GVSU develops its nursing program based on its practice partners to ensure it is meeting their needs. “Examples include the development of specialized course content like perioperative nursing, so our graduates enter the workforce prepared to collaborate in the perioperative area, and education of nurse practitioners for primary care. And most recently, we developed a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Certificate program to address the very serious mental health crisis.”

It’s also important that nurses continue to have the interpersonal skills to work with patients, particularly with the increase in technology that is changing patient diagnosis, treatments and care options.

“Nurses must remain vigilant that they remain focused on the patient as an individual and not simply be focused on the machines and computers surrounding them,” Potts said.

Even as challenges mount, nurses will continue to show up. They will do the tough jobs and hope for the best outcomes for their patients — as demonstrated by the COVID-19 crisis. Despite inadequate PPE in many hospitals and devastating patient scenarios, nurses remain on the frontlines, caring for their patients.

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