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Ancient records provide proof that nursing has been around for thousands of years. The human drive to care for others and provide help in a time of crisis was around long before doctors’ offices and hospitals existed, but nurses have never been more crucial than they are today.

As the U.S. population continues to age, the demand for nurses is increasing rapidly. The American Nurses Association reports that by 2022, more nursing jobs will be available than any other profession. Nurses staff hospitals, long-term care facilities, rehab facilities, doctors’ offices, and home health companies.

Nursing has always been a vital profession, and many people consider it to be more of a calling than a career. But why do nurses play such an essential role in health care? And why is the U.S. experiencing a nursing shortage now?

History of Nursing in the U.S.

Nursing has existed in some form since the dawn of humanity. Nurses and midwives played central roles in childbirth, nursing people through plagues, and caring for the injured during wars. But because ancient medicine was so rudimentary, “nursing” looked a lot different. Even up until the 1800s, nursing typically involved fundamentals such as making compresses for fevers, administering herbal remedies, and putting together heating pads to warm the beds of ill patients. Hospitals weren’t standard, and the ones that existed to house injured soldiers during wars didn’t receive the level of maintenance and attention we associate with modern hospitals and medical clinics.

During the 1800s, British nurse Florence Nightingale founded a training school for nurses and led the charge to modify sanitation and nursing practices. Although she was not American, her work was far-reaching and had a massive impact on nursing and medicine in the U.S. Among her contributions to nursing, she proved it wasn’t only a profession, but a noble way to care for those in need at all levels of society.

Her experiences working in hospitals and clinical settings worldwide inspired her to lead the charge to implement increased cleaning and sanitation efforts in hospitals, establish hospital cafeterias where patients receive nourishing food to aid in their recovery, and develop targeted nursing education programs.

Why Are Nurses Important?

Though many nurses have come and gone since the days of Florence Nightingale, her legacy lives on. Today’s nurses, first and foremost, maintain their commitment to caring for a patient’s most basic physical needs and will still find themselves offering a heating pad or cold compress when needed. But there is much more to it. The answer to why nurses are important is simple. Modern-day nurses are highly educated medical professionals who work in tandem with a health care team to provide compassionate medical care to anyone in need.

A nurse’s role within a hospital or clinical setting can include the following responsibilities.

1. Patient Advocate

Often, nurses are a patient’s voice to the rest of their health care team. Why? Nurses spend more time with patients than anyone else. One study found that out of all the medical professionals a patient encountered in an intensive care unit, 86 percent of that time was interactions with nurses. In a doctor’s office, hospital, or long-term care facility, nurses frequently talk with patients and their families. By doing this, they gather detailed information about how a patient is feeling — more than their chart would typically represent — as well as needs and behaviors that might impact their condition.

By working one-on-one with their patients, a nurse can also more easily identify potential problems that might interfere with someone’s progress, such as harmful drug interactions or a previously undetected issue the rest of the health team should be aware of. Home health nurses or nurses who work in a nursing home play a critical role in preventing or managing issues patients may be unable to communicate to others.

2. Patient Care

In the past, nurses had a reputation for being less valuable in the medical community. The belief at the time was that they were only there to change sheets, administer medications, deliver food, and bathe patients. But the truth is that nurses play a valuable role in patient care that far exceeds personal hygiene. How many times have you gone to the doctor and felt confused by their highly technical explanation filled with medical jargon? Nurses are so effective at offering medical care because their training enables them to explain their complex medical knowledge and make it more approachable for patients. Nurses can often offer the same care as physicians, but they do it in a more down-to-earth and relatable way.

That’s not to say nurses and doctors are the same. Today, nurses enjoy a collaborative relationship with doctors, physicians’ assistants, and other medical professionals. Nurses operate as a vital part of a health care team, combining the best of medical knowledge and human compassion to every situation. In some cases, however, nurses have the authority to act autonomously, especially when a patient’s condition changes suddenly and they need immediate stabilization. In other cases, doctors may outline parameters in which nurses can administer drugs such as pain medications, leaving nurses to carry out their instructions without supervision.

3. Monitoring Patient Health

Nurses play a significant role in the day-to-day monitoring of patients’ health. In the hospital, nurses regularly check and chart vitals, monitor levels, draw blood, and update physicians on patient progress. In health facilities and doctors’ offices, nurses are responsible for recording patient vitals and keeping track of health issues and medications. They can also assist doctors in minor surgical procedures and tests conducted in the office. Depending on the facility, they may also spend a significant amount of time updating permanent patient records and applying the corresponding charges needed for billing purposes.

As stated previously, nurses also play a remarkable role as the liaison between a patient and the rest of their medical team. Nurses are responsible for listening to the patient and communicating the relevant information to their physician and others on the medical team, either verbally or through detailed charting. In doctors’ offices, nurses often screen calls from patients, inquiring about acute symptoms, medication changes, and other health-related issues. In some cases, nurses may be able to advise patients on whether they should seek additional treatment. In other cases, nurses convey patient concerns to the physician and then go back to the patient with the doctor’s recommendations.

Some nurses even regularly visit patients in their homes. Home health nurses fill various roles, such as administering medication or treatment to patients who cannot do so themselves. They may also clean wounds, draw blood, and monitor vitals.

4. Education

In a hospital setting, nurses spend a lot of time educating patients about their condition, as well as the procedures and medications required to resolve it. Nurses can reliably clarify a doctor’s diagnosis, then offer more detailed instructions on how to manage symptoms and proceed with treatment. Nurses also provide comprehensive discharge information, so patients can continue to care for themselves at home.

Outside the hospital, nurses shoulder the responsibility of helping patients maintain a healthy lifestyle and prevent illnesses. Nurses can make recommendations on diet and exercise to manage heart conditions, and relay and clarify doctor information about medication dosing and side effects.

On a larger scale, nurses also play a vital role in advocating for illness prevention and educating the public on potential health problems. Daily, this may take the form of one-on-one conversations with patients about healthy living strategies, such as diet and exercise tips for a patient’s individual needs or lifestyle. At the macro level, some nurses become public health nurses, who educate individuals and communities on preventive health strategies. Public health nurses often work in tandem with local health organizations to provide free health screenings, blood drives, and immunization clinics.

What Are the Causes of the Nursing Shortage?

Why is there a shortage of nurses in the U.S.? The baby boomers — the 76 million people born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964 — are entering retirement, with 82 million Americans expected to be over 65 by 2030. In other words, the number of people needing quality medical care is rapidly increasing. These older Americans are already putting a significant strain on the nation’s health care system and creating the need for more qualified health professionals to work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and long-term care facilities.

In addition to an aging population, the average age of a registered nurse is 50, which means many active nurses are also quickly heading into their retirement years.

There has never been a greater demand for highly trained, dedicated nurses. Though there are needs around the country, some states are experiencing and will experience greater nursing shortages than others. Projections indicate that in 2030, the most significant shortages by far will be in California. Other states that will likely have shortages exceeding 10,000 registered nurses include Texas, New Jersey, and South Carolina.

Rural areas will also experience a notable shortage of qualified nursing candidates. Finding high-quality medical professionals to serve rural areas has always been a challenge. These localities often don’t have a robust local economy, meaning they can’t offer as many amenities and career opportunities for a nurse’s family members, and they are farther from the nursing schools where candidates receive training.

Effects of a Nursing Shortage

The growing nursing shortage could create several problems around the U.S.

1. Nurse Burnout

A higher nurse-to-patient ratio means more patients under the care of a single nurse. When a nurse has too many patients to juggle and not enough help, there is an increased likelihood that they will become exhausted and burned out. Over time, a job they loved becomes a burden, and they lose the drive to perform it well. Nurse burnout can lead to a lower quality of care, or it might cause talented nurses to leave the profession altogether.

2. Decreased Quality of Patient Care

As mentioned earlier, the time a nurse spends chatting with a patient about how they’re feeling and listening to a concerned family member can significantly affect the care a patient receives and the health care team’s ability to successfully and holistically address a patient’s health issues. Overworked nurses are less able to devote an adequate amount of time to patient care. They may not have time to lend a listening ear, or they could forget what someone tells them. Or,  they may even confuse the information one patient gives them with that of another.

When there aren’t enough nurses to go around, nurses also don’t have as much time to educate patients on the lifestyle changes they need to make when they complete their initial round of treatment at a hospital or care facility. They may not spend as much time explaining medication guidelines or offering suggestions on home care.

3. Negative Patient Outcomes

Patients who experience an elevated nurse-to-patient ratio are also more likely to get readmitted for care within 30 days of their first encounter. They are also at a higher risk for hospital-acquired infections because nurses can’t spend as much time attending to them. On the other hand, research has demonstrated a link between higher nurse-to-patient ratios and lower mortality rates for patients.

Could You Be Part of the Solution?

There has never been a more critical time for men and women to join the global ranks of nurses. When you choose to begin a nursing program, you are entering a valuable and life-changing profession. Besides providing a fulfilling career, the opportunities in the U.S. nursing workforce provide the opportunity to make a living caring for people in need.

When people think about nurses, they might picture working in a hospital operating room or delivering chips of ice to a woman’s bedside during labor. And those are both essential responsibilities. But one of the most rewarding things about nursing is that it offers a wide variety of opportunities for people with all interests and abilities. Believe it or not, you can work toward many different types of nursing, including a licensed practical nurse, registered nurse, nursing assistant, and travel nurse, among others. Each of these requires different levels of education and commitment.

If you’ve decided it’s time to advance your career and make a difference, congratulations! You’ve taken the first step toward the rest of your life. Let Vista College help you on your journey. Learn more about our Vocational Nurse Diploma or Practical Nurse Diploma today.

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