As you know, health care is opening to a world of opportunities, as we’ve seen sweeping changes unlike any other in the last five decades. Social, political, economic, and technological trends form a “perfect storm.” Today’s nurses are trailblazing new roads in the profession, as they adopt different roles and operate in nontraditional workplace settings.
Nurses today still care for patients, but they must also provide it in the right manner, at the right time, and in the right place. Health care organizations still seek to provide the best patient experience, but they also must cut costs, boost outcomes, and ensure safety. There is growing demand for registered nurses, both in and outside hospital doors, that demands caretakers develop a new skillset and a new mindset. Below are five ways that demonstrate how nursing has morphed and shape-shifted recently, and how nurses can make the most of tomorrow’s opportunities.
Trend #1: Jobs are moving outside of hospitals.
Inpatient units—and sometimes whole hospitals—are being closed and patients are being moved into alternative settings, such as long-term care, rehab, and subacute care facilities. Case in point: Experts estimate that today 65% of health care services are delivered in ambulatory settings, rather than hospitals. That transition from inpatient to ambulatory care settings occurred slowly over the past decade.
Why the switch? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was a major factor that hastened what hospitals were already doing: offering services outside their doors. Health care organizations want to cut down on admissions (and re-admissions), and they seek to do that by pumping up preventive care and caring for patients at home, or on an outpatient and community basis.
Andrea Higham leads Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing’s Future, launched in 2002 to recruit and retain more nurses and nursing faculty, including minority, male, and other underrepresented groups. “Nursing is at a very exciting time, and nurses are on the frontline of health care, providing delivery of care across the board,” says Higham. “So many people are entering health care because of a confluence of so many forces, such as the Affordable Care Act and an aging population. Nurses are working not just in hospitals, but also in home health care, at clinics, as advanced practice nurses, and managing the entire health care journey. There’s a strong need for nurses in many places outside of the traditional health care setting.”
Think about opportunities outside of the hospital. For example, if you’re interested in pediatrics or working with adolescents, consider openings in pediatric long-term care, pediatric home care, pediatric rehab, or at group homes for children or teens.
According to Phyllis Quinlan, PhD, RN-BC, president of MFW Consultants to Professionals and a nursing coach, nontraditional settings, such as subacute care, are fine places to practice if applicants can overcome their preconceptions. “Long ago and far away, it was considered grandma’s nursing home, but now it’s a combination of residential care and short-term rehabilitation. It could even include pediatric or non-geriatric care,” she explains. “Hospitals are shutting down med-surg floors, and shifting patients to other, lower-cost venues for treatment. Say someone falls and breaks a hip—now they have to learn how to walk with that new hip. That’s when they need bridge care—skilled care, rehabilitation, nursing care—until they can go back home. It’s not about disease care anymore, but about preventative care and home care for managing diseases today. Hospitals soon will be only for emergency care, cardiac care, burns, traumatic injury, [and] cancer centers.”
In addition, health care organizations within the private, government, and nonprofit sectors also need qualified registered nurse candidates to fill the high demand for traditional and alternative roles.
Trend #2: New or returning nurses must develop job-search savvy and resolve to land coveted hospital positions.
“For those new graduates hoping for good med-surg experience after nursing school but can’t get a job in a hospital, don’t despair,” says Quinlan, even though hospitals have adopted stringent nurse recruiting requirements and sought to cut costs in every way without compromising care.
“Most urban area hospitals aren’t hiring, but in other areas, that’s not the case,” she explains, suggesting that new grads and nurses with some experience apply for residency or internship programs to “fast track” their careers with intensive preparation for 12 to 18 months.
“Some health care systems are rich with nursing training resources, others do it but in a more conventional way,” she adds. Another way to get your foot in the door at a hospital: “Move to [an] area where they are hiring. The State of Texas is hiring new nurses, and other states are recruiting nurses to serve a special need or a growing population.”
Nurses who are open to filling short-term temp assignments also have a leg up on other candidates; hospitals are offering six-month contracts rather than making long-term commitments they may not be able to honor.
Trend #3: Nurses must further education, clinical skills, and knowledge to keep up with complexities.
Once, a two-year associate’s program could prepare a nurse for a secure and fulfilling career. Not anymore. “Most places now will hire a nurse with an associate’s degree but ask that she sign a hiring agreement to get a baccalaureate within five years or so,” says Quinlan. “Across the 50 states, the culture varies, but independent facilities and major health systems tell me ‘we’ll only hire baccalaureate-trained nurses,’ so you need to make your peace with the fact that the minimum preparation for practice is now a bachelor’s in nursing.”
The other source of tidal change is digital technology and big data, which make it possible for nurses to do more with their expertise and deliver care from practically any corner of the world, while enjoying the advantages of telecommuting, like other professions.
“Technology allows nurses to practice off the beaten path in more ways than ever before,” says Brittney Wilson, RN, BSN, also known as The Nerdy Nurse. “With jobs like remote case management, telephone triage, and even informatics consulting, nurses can use the clinical knowledge and technical skills to help patients from the comfort of their home.
“Opportunities to work from home and attend to patient care needs virtually do come with a price,” adds Wilson, who is a nurse expert with experience as a clinical informatics nurse. “You have to have above-average computer skills and must be able to learn new software quickly.”
There’s a big need for nurses who have a business background. Traditional nursing programs do not address business aspects of health care. Nurses who go on for a master’s degree in business administration or health administration will understand policies and procedures that are governing health care now.
Trend #4: Nurses must focus on their own personal and career development to progress in the profession.
Clinical and other technical skills are important for any nurse to develop, but so are “soft skills”—for example, effective communication and problem-solving know-how.
“New to nursing? Maybe you have great ideas, but maybe you’re missing skills in how to talk to a patient or family members or how to collaborate with others,” says Higham. “You can always access our avatar-based online program, Your Future in Nursing, on the Campaign’s website.” The cutting-edge format, a game-like simulation environment for practicing key on-the-job concepts and skills, helps a student nurse prepare to make the often tough transition to practicing nurse.
Accelerating change in the health care workplace may require that new and seasoned nurses adjust their attitude and become more flexible about new ways of doing things. According to Quinlan, author of the recently published Rediscover the Joy of Being A Nurse: A Holistic Approach to Recovery from Compassion Fatigue, there’s no point in lamenting the good old days. “Nurses are some of the most creative people on the planet; they’ll make something out of nothing on a daily basis,” she says. “Some feel that they’re expected to adjust instantly to changing conditions and expectations, and they resent it. Those nurses must make peace with the new health care environment, themselves, and their profession.”
Until then, “they’re at a crossroads, and risk starting to swing to the dark side, having lost connection with the joy of practicing,” Quinlan adds.
Trend #5: Nurses will take on expanded and pivotal roles as part of tomorrow’s health care team.
How will we prepare nurses to transition to these advanced practice roles? That question has long been central for Donna Tanzi, MPS, RN-BC, NE-BC, director of nursing education and innovation at North Shore-LIJ Huntington Hospital in New York. “Nurses are going into master’s programs early on in their careers—after getting a baccalaureate, they’re going straight into a master’s or even doctoral degrees,” she says. “They have less clinical experience prior to getting an advanced degree, so we have an obligation as a profession to support them. Entry to DNP takes seven years from entry to graduation, similar to the medical model.”
Tanzi recommends nurse residency programs or fellowship programs for an extensive, tiered approach as students make the transition into their complex new roles.
“Nurses were tending to leave a job in the first year, or to leave nursing totally, because they weren’t prepared for the demands of the role,” she explains. “The bottom line and the message that I want to get out there is go into nursing for the right reasons. Recognize it’s an art and a science and we have the ability to impact people’s lives every day. Continue learning—there [are] always new directions and avenues to explore. There’s no reason to ever become stagnate or get bored in nursing; there are too many opportunities.”
There are many areas where advanced practice nurses apply their expertise gained through a master’s (or increasingly, a doctorate) in nursing or a related field. Clinical nurse practitioners are opening independent practices, or working with an academic affiliation in hospitals, or affiliated with physicians in their practices. Administrative leadership roles usually call for an MBA or MHA. Demand for nurses continues, so we need nurses to teach in nursing schools. At a minimum, instructors must have a master’s in nursing or in nursing education. Entrepreneurship, consulting, and research and development are also growth areas for advanced practice nurses.
Everywhere we look, nurses are being called on to surf the tidal waves of a changing health care environment and the emerging opportunities that come forth from it. Tomorrow’s nurses, with the right technical skills and personal qualities, can look forward to a rewarding career where they can deliver even greater value to their patients and communities.
Photo courtesy of Johnson & Johnson
It is an enviable opportunity to provide healing services to a country in need by combining a fairly large, diverse, multidisciplined medical team. Three nurses on missions did just that, and in the process, they saw that one person can make a difference. They share their experiences in the Dominican Republic (DR), Haiti, Kenya, and Uganda here in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same.
Marie Etienne, PhD, MSN, with Haitian children
The Haitian and Dominican cane cutters and their families in the Dominican Republic are spread over some 350 bateyes (cane-cutting communities). They were in dire need of access to health care—and Marie Etienne, PhD, MSN, a professor of nursing at Miami Dade College, responded.
Etienne, who was born in Haiti, came to the United States at the age of 14. From her youth, she has seen herself as a servant leader and believed a career in nursing would provide opportunities to fulfill her aspirations. She has been a member of the Haitian American Nurses Association of Florida (HANA) and served as president from 2005 to 2007.
Today, she serves as the chairperson of the International Nursing Committee of the Red Cross. In 2005, an attorney and member of the Miami Haitian community visited the bateyes in the DR, and when he returned, he told her that he had seen living conditions of the migrant workers and they were être traités comme des esclaves (being treated as slaves), with no access to health care. He suggested that HANA do something to shine a light on the conditions in the bateyes and devise ways to help the workers and their families. Etienne took the findings of the attorney to the Haitian American Professionals Coalition (HAPC) and obtained support to conduct a needs assessment of the situation. One of the objectives of the HAPC is to examine and address issues affecting Haitians in the United States and abroad.
“We went on the first mission trip to the DR in 2005 to assess the need and take care of the people in the bateyes,” recalls Etienne. The team saw over 1,000 patients in the week they were there and realized the level of need was so great that they decided to do two medical missions each year.
Haitian cane cutters in the DR are not recognized as citizens, and children born in the country do not receive birth certificates. The sugar cane farming sector of the DR depends fundamentally on Haitian migrants, who represent 90% of the labor force in sugar cane cutting and are paid $1 per day.
The team, once assembled, included a diverse blend of medical and health care competencies and others who offered their availability in a supporting role. “But in 2006, I decided that we needed to get nursing students involved because there are certain things you can teach students in the classroom and certain things you can’t,” explains Etienne.
She received the support and participation of the college’s administration and trustees, who quickly approved and funded the project. “As a professor, I inaugurated this project as part of the students’ learning activity to get them engaged and to give back to the community so they may become global citizens and in the process enhance their cultural competence,” she says.
Twelve nursing students from the associate’s degree program were added to the team. The team travelled to the DR to do a one-week mission trip twice each year from 2006 to 2009—each time serving some 1,200 patients ranging from children to the elderly with a wide spread of medical and health conditions.
In 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti, killing over 200,000 people, and the mission’s focus shifted to Haiti. “Our attention turned to the needs in Haiti as relief efforts, and other nurses who were members of the [National Black Nurses Association] came together to share in the relief response treating wounds, stabilizing the injured, triaging patients according to symptoms, and whatever else was necessary,” says Etienne. “I went to Haiti about five times that year going back and forth. I also went to one of the universities to teach the nursing students basic skills and show how they can be empowered to take care of their own country.”
In 2012, the team was asked back to the DR because the health care needs persisted and the living conditions were deplorable. The people in the bateyes were doing their level best by any means necessary to survive, but the team decided not to go back in 2013 because the DR Supreme Court had ruled that the government could proceed to deport all persons who are in the country illegally, and that put a lot of fear into the workers needing health care.
Many Haitians arrive in the DR through open borders without legal documents and stay in the country this way. The living conditions of these communities are extremely poor, and immigrants generally live in impoverished barracks that have no electricity, no basic sewage services, and no potable water. There are no health services, recreational spaces, or schools. The workers work 12 hours per day on average and face the threat of deportation when they attempt to organize to obtain basic rights. “As the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision began to be felt, violence subsequently broke out and, for the sake of the students, I could not take them there that year,” Etienne explains.
On their visits, the U.S. team partnered with the Universidad Central del Este, which assigned 50 medical students for a week. They gave one rotation in the morning and one in the evening to work with Miami Dade College students. “We were assigned a primary school in one of the towns outside Santo Domingo, the capital, where we set up the clinic,” says Etienne. “We had registration in one area, a room for triage, and vital signs in another area. Then we sent the patients to see the primary care doctor, or the PA, and then they went to pharmacy, where all the medications were donated by U.S. Catholic charities and others. We designed a pediatric area, and it had balloons, coloring books, toys, and games just to make the children comfortable where we did play therapy. And for the elderly, we would triage them by themselves, keeping them hydrated so they can see the primary.
“Some have asked us if we feel like we are putting a Band-Aid on the conditions of people’s lives in the bateyes. I would explain that our purpose of going there was so we could save lives. One of the patients had a seizure, and if we were not there he would have died. Another had an asthma attack, and because of the ventilator machine we brought along with the administration of some albuterol and follow-up care, that patient recovered. We feel we are saving lives and making an impact. The people know that someone cares about them and that they are not forgotten,” says Etienne.
“God puts us here to serve other people, and if we can put a smile on someone else’s face—if we can change someone’s life—we should not think twice about it,” she says emphatically.
Sharon Smith, PhD, with Maasai tribesman
At the tender age of eight, Sharon Smith, PhD, believed that one day she would be a missionary. She knew she would go to Africa and serve in some capacity, but she never really knew how that would happen. “I just figured it would somehow come through my interest in health care,” she explains. As a young person, her aspiration was to be an oral surgeon, but she knew she would not like some of the situations she would see, so she chose nursing. She is currently a nurse practitioner at the Family Health Centers of San Diego.
“Nursing offered me more career flexibility. My roles as a nurse just fit my personality, so I am glad I chose nursing instead,” says Smith. “I didn’t know I would go to Kenya, but that is where I landed, and I have really enjoyed the connections and my experience working with the people there. That is what kept me going back.”
Smith’s first trip to Kenya was in 2006 with 12 members of a Pentecostal church group out of Carlsbad, California. A physician friend was unable to go and suggested that she go instead. Since then, she has been back twice on her own. Nairobi served as the primary hub on each visit, but on her first visit she went to the town of North Kinangop, about a two-hour drive from Nairobi, the capital.
She also visited the town of Tumutumu and spent time doing crafts with the children in a home for the deaf and hearing impaired. This was possible because the group from California included a young woman who could sign. The home for the deaf was adjacent to the Tumutumu Hospital, which provides care to approximately 3,000 inpatients and more than 16,000 outpatients each year. Tumutumu Hospital is one of the three mission hospitals in Kenya sponsored by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). Smith and her team came with hospital supplies that they delivered to the staff. The hospital had a large HIV clinic, and while the children waited on their parents, they were provided with school supplies and toys as gifts from Smith and her team.
As the visitors toured the hospital wards (floors), they were exposed to the differences between nursing practices in Kenya and the United States. They saw how much was lacking by way of resources and training. In a ward, there would be a patient with pneumonia next to a surgical patient with an open wound, who may be next to a patient with HIV. There was no segregation based on medical condition. In the pediatric ward, however, three or four rooms were set aside for preemies or small children who were intubated or on ventilators. Smith says that at this hospital there were one or two experienced nurses, but all the work was done by student nurses from the PCEA Tumutumu Nursing School. “They ran the hospital with the number of beds at about almost 200, inclusive of the maternity ward. There was no ICU, however,” she explains.
On her third trip to Kenya in 2010, Smith, who was at that time one of two nurse practitioners in the U.S. team of eight, visited an orphanage of 250 children and did physicals on over 100 of them, from newborns up through teenagers. This provided the orphanage with the children’s first medical records. While on this trip, Smith also had an opportunity to work with some of the nurses of Kenya on a very large, day-long health expo in the Maasai village. They performed health screenings, vaccinations, physicals, oral examinations and extractions, working alongside physicians and dentists from Kenya.
Smith did have an opportunity to see up close the delivery of care inside a hospital in Nairobi after a dog bit a member of the U.S. team and required medical attention. Her assessment is that the hospital provided care comparable to that found in most U.S. hospitals. “My focus and concern was, however, the care delivered by the rural hospitals,” she says.
For Kenyans, Smith is the sister returning home, so they go through the villages and alert the community that “our sister is coming home.” “They plan for my arrival ahead of time,” she says, “and I am planning my return in 2016.”
Angela Allen, PhD, with the head nurse at a Uganda hospital
Raised by her community-minded grandmother, Angela Allen, PhD, took her mission trips to Uganda with concern for both the physical and spiritual well-being of the people of Uganda. The Detroit native received her doctorate from Arizona State University with a focus on geriatric and dementia patients, and now she is the clinical research program director with the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.
Allen visited Uganda in 2010 and 2012 for periods up to three weeks each visit. Her visits allowed her to interact with the elderly who might have some form of cognitive impairment. What she uncovered was that cognitive impairment was less of a concern than physical impairment, which prevented the people in the community from caring for themselves. Even though she had gone with a religious purpose sponsored by the Church of God in Christ, Allen did have an opportunity to do research in an area of interest to her. Virtually all of the team’s time was spent in towns like Jinja, a town of approximately 70,000 people and a two and half hour’s drive from the capital, Kampala.
The team fully identified themselves with the Ugandans they sought to reach by sleeping in their huts and immersing themselves into the life and rhythm of the communities. “The people were hungry for knowledge more so than food, so I taught them, spending time with the women to help them develop a sense of community and even preached to them,” Allen says. “I was well received because, after my first visit to the hospital in Hoima, I was invited back by the hospital. So, I took what I had learned from the qualitative observations I had conducted and returned in 2012 as part of a team of 25 people and a fully developed plan, including a full curriculum for the nursing students.”
Allen’s plan included addressing the needs of adolescents, especially girls, who needed to hear that they were appreciated and acknowledged as persons of value. With the help of town officials, she recruited young girls and, using an interpreter, exposed exposed them to two days of instruction on self-esteem and self-pride.
She also worked on securing hospital supplies through Project C.U.R.E. (Commission on Urgent Relief and Equipment) in Phoenix, as well as surplus supplies from hospitals where she had worked in the past. These filled several crates that were presented to the hospital in Hoima.
Lastly, Allen sought to teach a two-day class to the nurses, but in the process she realized that the level of training the nurses had received was comparable to the training provided to nursing assistants in the United States. Her observations of the accommodations provided to the patients was comparable to those Smith observed in Kenya (e.g., patients were not segregated by medical condition in the wards).
“This was a life-changing experience for me,” says Allen. “I never imagined that this visit to the continent of Africa would affect me so much. It was a very emotional experience because the need is so great. I reaffirmed that my purpose in life is to help others.”
From electronic health records (EHRs) to smartphone apps, today’s health IT tools can help nurses develop innovative strategies for closing the gap of racial and ethnic health disparities.
One of the top priorities of President Obama’s Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009 is to reduce health disparities—such as disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases in racial and ethnic minority populations—through the “meaningful use” of EHR technology. Seven years after the passage of HITECH, how much progress have we made toward achieving that goal?
In the 2013 report Understanding the Impact of Health IT in Underserved Communities and Those with Health Disparities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) showcases many innovative examples of how health care providers nationwide are using EHRs, as well as other types of health IT, to increase access to care and improve health outcomes in communities of color. From the rural Mississippi Delta to immigrant and low-income communities in large metropolitan areas, “health IT offers promising tools to address chronic diseases by facilitating the continuity of care and long-term follow-up needed for successful management of these conditions,” the report concludes.
That, of course, is where nurses come in. Take a close look at successful model programs that are deploying health IT to help close the gap of unequal health outcomes and you’ll see nurses—including hospital and clinic RNs, nurse practitioners, informatics nurses, case management nurses, nurse researchers, and more—playing leadership roles.
“Nurses are coordinators of care for patients. We’re typically the first person they see when they seek health care,” says Joyce Sensmeier, MS, RN-BC, CPHIMS, FAAN, vice president of informatics at HIMSS. “It’s really a natural extension of the nurse’s role with patients to connect the dots from the information technology side.”
For most nurses, health IT begins with the EHR. This essential platform enables them to instantly access a patient’s complete health record, document patient data in real time, monitor changes in the patient’s condition, and use clinical decision support tools—such as computerized alerts—to respond to those changes. But increasingly, nurses are also waging war against health inequities by arming themselves with an arsenal of other high-tech tools, including the following:
• patient portal websites, which give patients convenient access to their personal health information and enhance communication between clinicians and patients;
• health information exchanges, which allow patient data to be securely shared between different providers—such as hospitals, ERs, and primary care providers—to improve continuity of care;
• wireless and mobile health (mHealth) technologies, such as smartphone apps and text messaging;
• external databases, such as state and national disease registries and immunization registries, that collect clinical information about specialized populations of patients across a large geographic area; and
• population management software (PMS) systems, which help nurses track health trends among specific groups of patients they care for—for example, pediatric patients, or patients with diabetes.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
For nurses who are working to improve minority health outcomes, one of the biggest advantages of using health IT is that these tools make it easier than ever before to capture, compare, and analyze patient data. And that translates into unprecedented opportunities for leveraging that data to better manage the needs of patients with chronic illnesses, identify gaps in care, and develop targeted interventions.
“Clinicians have always been information workers,” says David Hunt, MD, FACS, medical director of patient safety and health IT adoption at the ONC. “It’s just that so often we’re focused on that one patient, that one chart. IT tools give you the ability to step back and look across groups of patients to really get insight into how to make care better.”
In other words, these technologies maximize nurses’ ability to address health disparities from a population health perspective. You can “slice and dice” the data stored in the EHR to classify and group patients in many different ways—for example, by race, ethnicity, age, and gender. Nurses can also zero in on patients who have particular conditions—such as heart failure, asthma, or HIV—to generate condition-specific reports and action plans, says Wanda Govan-Jenkins, DNP, MS, MBA, RN, lead nurse informaticist for the ONC.
“You can look at the EHR and extract these groups of patients to see which patients’ blood pressure was elevated at their last visit, or which patient hasn’t been seen for a while,” she explains.
Patient portals are another vehicle for communicating chronic disease management reminders to whole populations of patients, adds Lisa Oldham, PhD, RN, NE-BC, FABC, vice president of practice operations and chief nursing officer at the Institute for Family Health, which provides care to medically underserved communities at multiple facilities in New York City and state. The institute’s portal, MyChart MyHealth, is available in both English and Spanish (MiRecord MiSalud).
“We can create an electronic letter for the entire organization’s patients who fall into a specific category and send it to them through the portal,” Oldham says. “The patient will get an e-mail that says, ‘Please go into your MyChart,’ and that’s where they’ll see the letter. For instance, we just sent out an e-mail blast to all our geriatric patients reminding them to come in for their annual wellness visit.”
At the Cherokee Indian Hospital (CIH) in North Carolina, a tribal health system that serves more than 14,000 members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, care management nurses develop outreach campaigns using the hospital’s PMS, which works in conjunction with the EHR.
“By pulling data out of these platforms, our nurses can target in and pinpoint things like how many people need to get a colorectal cancer screening or a Pap test,” says Sonya Wachacha, MHS, RN, CCM, executive director of nursing at CIH. “Then the nurse generates a reminder letter to that person, such as ‘Mrs. Smith, it looks like you’re due for your mammogram. Can you please come in and get that done?’”
On an even larger scale, says Hunt, “disease registries are wonderful resources, because you can identify characteristics and trends that you don’t have insight into when you’re just looking at a group of patients within your own practice. Having the benefit of looking at large amounts of data from many, many providers gives you tremendous insight in terms of being able to infer more information about your patient population.”
Educate, Engage, Empower
Nurses are also finding that consumer-driven health IT tools, like patient portals and mHealth technology, can offer exciting new ways to help patients who are living with chronic diseases become better educated about their conditions, more engaged with their treatment, and more empowered to self-manage their own health.
Patients can log into their care provider’s portal and access disease management educational materials, which health systems can tailor to meet the needs of limited-English-speaking and low-literacy patients. For example, the Institute for Family Health’s portal has links to patient education resources in more than 40 languages.
At the Institute’s Ellenville Family Health Center in Ellenville, New York, a rural community with one of the highest poverty levels in the state, “the most prevalent disease processes in our patient population are diabetes and cardiovascular problems,” says staff nurse Santiago Diaz, RN. “The portal has information specifically for these patients. We walk them through the basics of where to find the information, and we show them the shortcuts so that they don’t get lost in all the information that’s up there.”
Because nearly everybody today seems to have a smartphone or cellphone, these devices can help nurses connect with hard-to-reach populations, such as young people. Jo-Ann Eastwood, PhD, RN, CCNS, CCRN, associate professor and advanced practice program director at UCLA School of Nursing, recently conducted a research study that used custom-designed smartphone apps to teach young African American women who were at high risk for heart disease how to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.
“When we look at chronic disease prevention in minority populations,” she says, “we have to look at the population that’s between 25 and 45 years old, or even younger. If we’re going to develop prevention strategies that are relevant to this population that is very technologically astute, that is fast-moving, that is busy, we have to hit them where it’s salient.”
Govan-Jenkins, who is also a professor of informatics in the graduate program at Walden University School of Nursing, recommends teaching patients how to download and use the many free or low-cost mobile apps that are available in the consumer health marketplace. For instance, there are diabetes management apps that let patients monitor their blood glucose levels and upload that data to their patient portal for nurses to track.
“Patients who have smartphones or mobile devices can download continuous self-monitoring apps that let them see things like how many steps they took that day and how many calories they burned,” Govan-Jenkins continues. “The nurse can also send weekly or monthly text messages to condition-specific groups of patients, such as reminding them to take their medication.”
Ultimately, Wachacha believes, being able to interact with their own health data and personally follow their progress toward meeting their health improvement goals can make a big difference in engaging patients to take a more active part in their care.
“With our EHR, we can create graphs that let patients see how their blood sugar or blood pressure readings are going up or down over time,” she says. “When our tribal members who have diabetes, for example, can look at that graph and see that their A1C levels are going down after they start exercising, it’s meaningful for them. It gets them motivated to do more with their care, because they can see that the things they’ve done are having an impact on their results.”
Reaching Across Barriers
According to the ONC report, health care providers must find solutions for overcoming “challenges and barriers to the use of health IT” in medically underserved communities of color. Some of those challenges include limited access to Internet service and cellphone connectivity in underdeveloped rural areas, cultural and linguistic differences, and low rates of technology literacy among these patients.
Telehealth remote monitoring systems (software-based IT tools that let nurses collect data via a device they install in the patient’s home) are an effective strategy for reaching patients in rural communities who don’t have access to computers, says LaVerne Perlie, MSN, RN, senior nurse consultant at the ONC.
At the initial home visit, telehealth nurses show patients how to record their health information, such as blood pressure readings, and enter those numbers into the system. “That data is sent directly to the nurse in the provider’s office so that he or she knows when to come out and visit the patient and make recommendations for ongoing care, such as scheduling an office visit or even a hospital admission,” Perlie explains.
As members of the nation’s most trusted profession, nurses are ideally suited to educate patients who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology about how to use health IT tools and become more computer-literate.
At Institute for Family Health facilities, patients receive information about MyChart MyHealth as soon as they walk in the door. In the examination room, says Oldham, nurses explain how the portal works and the benefits of using it. They answer any questions the patient has. Then they help patients register for the portal right there, guiding them through the process of how to log in, create a correctly formatted password, and navigate the website. For patients who don’t have a computer at home, “we encourage them to use the computers at the public library [or to download the MyChart MyHealth mobile app to their smartphone if they have one],” adds Diaz.
Still, another challenge cited in the Understanding the Impact of Health IT report is that “customization of off-the-shelf health IT products often necessary to ensure that they [meet] the needs of underserved populations.” For example, the Cherokee Indian Hospital serves a patient population that has a high risk for suicide, substance abuse, and tobacco use. Because its EHR and PMS didn’t include functions for monitoring these risks, the hospital had to add them.
Hunt and Perlie emphasize that the best way hospitals can make sure their investment in technology will provide information that’s the right fit for their population health management needs is to get nurses involved in the design of health IT systems right from the start—before the technology is implemented. Many health IT projects fail, Govan-Jenkins cautions, because the implementation team didn’t seek input from frontline nursing staff. “And then they had to rebuild and re-implement the system, because it was just not capturing the data they needed to capture for their specific type of patients.”
That, says Sensmeier, is what reducing health disparities through the meaningful use of health IT is really all about. “It’s not just about adopting the technology. It’s about using it in such a way that we can capture the data that’s been entered and learn from it—learn what makes an impact in different patient populations, what care models and treatments work, what outcomes are being realized, and how we can change our practice.”
Tears build behind your eyes. Your mind plays over and over how much you want to turn and run, but you can’t. No matter what, you have to keep going because you are strong and people are relying on you. How can you endure it, though, when one part of you wants to scream and one part of you wants to break down and sob? You can do neither, and instead, you hold yourself as taut as a wire over the Grand Canyon.
You are in the elevator on your way up to your unit. Your shift hasn’t started yet, but these feelings are already invading your mind, spreading like tree roots into concrete. It will be worse once you are there, but nurses don’t crack. Nurses don’t break down. They get used to it. Except you can’t get used to it. It is killing you.
You are a nurse with clinical depression, and no one knows—not even you.
Depression is an epidemic in nursing, but no one will talk about it. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative (INQRI), nurses experience clinical depression at twice the rate of the general public. Depression affects 9% of everyday citizens, but 18% of nurses experience symptoms of depression.
If this is such a common occurrence, why don’t nurses talk about it? They are afraid that they will not be trusted with patients and they will not be part of the team. Some of them cannot accept that they need care when they have always been in the caring role. Unfortunately, many nurses just don’t know they have it.
Causes of Nurse Depression
Since depression is so common in nursing, what is causing these men and women to feel this way? The fact that it is ignored is almost inconsequential when you consider the fact that the causes are also ignored. If the causes of this epidemic are not addressed, more nurses will become depressed, patients may be put in danger, and the profession could wind up losing yet another nurse to the stresses of the job.
“Medicine is a profession that doesn’t give much thought to mental illness,” says John M. Grohol, PsyD, the founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of PsychCentral.com. “It is not within their realm of treatment.” Since medicine is concerned with what it can see, touch, and heal, mental health concerns are often shunted to the side. Nurses not only dismiss the idea of depression in their profession, but they also do it to themselves. This only causes the feelings to multiply.
It also doesn’t help that nursing culture is ruthless by nature.
“Depression is like a cardiac disease: you don’t know you have it. You don’t realize the subtleties,” says Louise Weadock, MPH, RN, the founder and president/CEO of ACCESS Healthcare Services. “Leaders need to create a culture that lifts nurses up. It shouldn’t be a culture in which only the strong survive. Nurses should not be proud of eating their young. Some managers brag, ‘If you can make it on my floor, you can make it anywhere.’”
The culture of survival leads nurses to feeling like they are always under tension—and this can cause anxiety, stress, and depression. Some nurses seem to take great pride in the amount of horrors they have endured, but for those who struggle with depression, living up to this standard and living in the culture only makes them feel like failures.
What are the evidence-based predisposing characteristics of depression, besides culture and neglect? The INQRI study found that certain factors, such as body mass index, job satisfaction, and mental well-being, can lead to clinical depression in nurses.
Furthermore, family problems can exacerbate the stresses a nurse feels, and often nurses feel out of control. They can’t control their shift, their patient load, or even if a patient lives or dies. Helplessness is a feeling that pervades the depressed nurse. When all of these causative factors are coupled with the disruptive cycle of shift work, can depression be far behind?
What does clinical depression look like in nurses? All nurses have covered mental health in their schooling and some work on mental health units. It is safe to say that most nurses know the general symptoms of depression, but it is far more subtle than what they were taught. In nurses, the symptoms are nearly buried under a continuously thwarted attempt to hide their feelings.
Guy Winch, PhD, a licensed psychologist and TED speaker, describes the different nuances in sadness and depression on the Squeaky Wheel blog at PsychologyToday.com:
“Sadness is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging, or disappointing event, experience, or situation. … [but] when that something changes, when our emotional hurt fades, when we’ve adjusted or gotten over the loss or disappointment, our sadness remits. … Depression is an abnormal emotional state, a mental illness that affects our thinking, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors in pervasive and chronic ways. … Depression does not necessarily require a difficult event or situation, a loss, or a change of circumstance as a trigger. In fact, it often occurs in the absence of any such triggers.”
Nurses often feel this way as well, but other factors and symptoms appear. “Nurses deal with depression by doing more, keep moving, not standing still, not putting their feelings into words,” says Michael Brustein, PsyD. “They power through it.”
Blake LeVine, MSW, founder of BipolarOnline.com, also makes this point about nurse culture and the medical status quo in general: “There is more detachment in medical professionals who are depressed. It is normal to be slightly detached. When a nurse is depressed, they can also become more detached with their family. They are used to being detached, but they can’t bring it home and cry over people [who] are sick. Depressed nurses may cry more over a patient who died. They may get very emotional. Something they used to deal with in the past can get more difficult for them.”
Of course, this need for detachment and getting past the pain can lead to self-medicating. Usually, that takes the form of alcohol or opiates—both downers that can make depression worse.
“All studies show that those with substance abuse problems have depression or anxiety,” states Nikki Martinez, PsyD, LCPC, a verified mental health counselor on BetterHelp.com. “Prescription drug problems are often present, and that becomes their drug of choice. Just take a pill, and the pain is gone. When a nurse is having a bad day, they can’t wait to come home and have a glass of wine.”
In addition to various negative coping mechanisms, nurses exhibit many other symptoms that are obvious to those looking in on the situation. Weadock explains them this way: “Nurses can experience difficulty concentrating, are slow to respond in a crisis, are accident-prone, and have a limited ability to perform mental tasks, such as care mapping, calculating doses, or intervals required for biometric interpretations. They are reclusive with poor interpersonal skills, struggle with time management, and have lower total productivity outcomes than nondepressed workers. They often have a ‘short-fuse,’ leading to explosive outbursts toward patient, family, or coworkers.”
Stigma against Mental Illness
Nurses are usually willing to talk about the problems in the profession, such as short staffing, poor ratios, and lack of managerial support. However, what they are not willing to talk about is depression and mental illness in their ranks. It is arguably nursing’s best kept secret. Eighteen percent of nurses are suffering from some form of clinical depression—and no one will talk about their experiences with it, what to do about it, or what causes it. What is behind this stigma?
Grohol breaks down the problem by focusing on the two parts of stigma: prejudice and discrimination. “There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what depression is,” he explains. “Many in the medical profession hold antiquated beliefs about mental illness, such as the condition was brought upon the self. Nurses are taught not to complain about it, and this is why they don’t talk about it.”
Then, nurses must deal with discrimination when they are found out. “Discrimination comes about when people with mental illness see nurses talking about those who have other medical issues, and don’t want things said about them,” Grohol continues. “Nurses would assign a person a label and boil down their personality to one word, and that is insulting and discriminatory.”
A primal aspect comes into this discrimination, as well. Nurses, for lack of a better reference, are a “band of brothers.” If you suspect the nurse beside you can’t handle the pressures, then you tend not to trust them.
Weadock has experienced this. “I don’t think nurse leadership or the workforce sees depressed nurses. When they perceive some sort of injury, then they throw the nurse out of the wolf pack. When you backslide into your disorder, that’s when people don’t know whether to trust you.”
The stigma has become so bad that many depressed nurses fear for their jobs. “Nurses know that admitting a mental health problem puts their job at risk,” says LeVine. “People are scared to admit it. That’s when mistakes happen. Get treated. Nurses feel they have to hide it to protect their jobs, but a nurse that seeks help for depression ends up a better and stronger nurse. Those who seek help have more longevity in their career.”
Psychologically, the prospect of losing everything rewarding about nursing is scary, and LeVine cites that as a reason for keeping quiet. “The hard part of admitting to depression is that nursing is a good paying job and losing it is hard. You are on a big team as a nurse. When you can’t do that anymore, you lose that sense of team. It is hard to give that up. Therapy means you can work on that and possibly avoid leaving the profession.”
One of the most prominent reasons for nurses to keep quiet about their mental health is the stigma associated with an “unhealthy” caregiver. Martinez describes it this way: “Nurses feel they need to be perfect and healthy at all times. It is just not possible when they are doing so much for someone else. Mental health professionals realize that this is a huge problem. Openly talking about it is the only way to break the cycle, but no one talks about it. When they do talk about it, it takes away stigma and shame.”
For these reasons and more, many nurses are living with depression in silence—afraid for their jobs, afraid that they are weak, and ignoring their own health in favor of others. In addition to education, treatment for nurses specifically is important for recovery and retention.
Self-Care and Treatment for Nurses
Nearly all experts agree that education is the primary method to get nurses treated for depression. This means educating management on what to look for, and for nurses to know the symptoms to recognize the condition in themselves and others. Sometimes coworkers can see symptoms far better than a manager can. If the stigma is reduced with education and support, those nurses can get the help they need from a team effort.
Weadock suggests that this reform starts with the manager. “A manager should say, ‘I’m going to put you on the bench and help you get better.’ Assignments should be given out just a dose at a time, because you don’t want to ruin the reputation of a good nurse. The nurse can’t help it when they are feeling depressed. Management needs to lift the RN up by promoting them to other suitable, supportive work environments, and to make reasonable accommodations for nurses whose cyclic phase of depression is negatively affecting their work performance.”
After management has identified a struggling nurse, that nurse should be introduced to treatment and encouraged to keep attending. Many nurses terminate their therapy because they think they don’t need it, they don’t feel they should be sick, or they are afraid someone will think they are weak.
“Seek medical treatment with a professional that understands depression,” LeVine suggests. “Find a therapist who understands a nurse’s career and life. Openly assess your situation. Do you need to take a break? If it is all too much, it is okay to do something else. It is better to admit that you are struggling and seek help. It’s like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.”
What can nurses do when they are in therapy and still working? According to Martinez, it all comes down to self-care. “Nurses often don’t have good self-care. It can be as simple as starting the day off right, instead of waking at the last minute and rushing around. Start off slowly: have some coffee, do meditation or yoga. Do things at the end of the day, too. Have rules with your family that the first half hour after work is for you when you come home.”
Alejandro Chaoul, PhD, is an assistant professor in the integrative medicine program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Working for a hospital, he often instructs nurses in how to better handle the stresses of their jobs.
“The motivation for nurses is that they feel like they shouldn’t focus on self, but they can focus on how their own mental health can help patients,” Chaoul explains. “We don’t need an excuse to take care of ourselves. It is an important part of being, not just a nurse. We have forgotten this. Showing how busy we are is the way to go. If you tell someone you are happy, it is almost like a sin.”
Nurses are practical, though. Self-care, therapy, and meditation are great ideas, but how is a depressed nurse supposed to handle the rigors of their fluctuating mood while actually working on the floor? One helpful technique is known as grounding. Grounding can be done anywhere, anytime, cannot usually be seen, and can last as long as you need it.
Lisa Najavits, PhD, describes grounding in her book, Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse, as follows: “Grounding is a set of simple strategies to detach from emotional pain (for example, drug cravings, self-harm impulses, anger, sadness). Distraction works by focusing outward on the external world—rather than inward toward the self.”
Najavits breaks it down into three categories: physical, mental, and soothing. A physical grounding exercise would comprise breathing in and out, thinking a soothing word on every exhale. A mental grounding exercise would include describing an everyday procedure, such as passing meds, in as much detail as possible. Finally, soothing grounding might be picturing your loved ones—or actually looking at a picture of them. For each type, there are many types of grounding, and these techniques can be learned through therapy.
Although the reasons for nurse depression are multi-factorial, part of the problem is the stigma. With education and a decrease in the antiquated notions of mental health, these nurses could get help. Registered nurses are leaving the profession in droves. Some of those defections are due to injury, but a large part is likely due to undiagnosed or unacknowledged depression. If nurses hope to keep the profession vital and solve such problems as short staffing and poor ratios, they need more nurses to stay working as nurses. Helping, instead of ostracizing, nurses with depression is exactly what nurses need to help solve other problems that they face.
Getting a job offer is thrilling, but having two offers on the table can actually heighten both excitement and anxiety. Because nurses are in demand and much needed right now, you could someday find yourself having to choose between two (or even more) job offers at once.
How will you know what to do? What specific parts of each job will make it the right job for you? Nurses should look at each job move strategically and analyze each offer carefully. One job might offer a significantly higher salary, but the other might tempt you with flexible hours and more vacation time.
The process of choosing the right job for you is stressful. You have a lot riding on this choice and the companies you are interviewing with have a big financial stake in choosing
the right candidate, too, says Kathy Quan, RN, BSN, PHN, author of The Everything New Nurse Book, and founder of TheNursingSite.com. You don’t want to waste their time—or yours. And if you choose the wrong job, you don’t want to find yourself back at square one looking for another job.
“When weighing job offers, there are financial considerations and work/life considerations,” says Kerry Hannon, author of Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness and Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies. “And there’s some soul searching.”
Hannon says you should think hard about what makes you love your nursing work and what makes you happy in life so you know what each job can do for you. Are you leaving a position where your shift never ends on time or one where your boss is horrible? “What are your deal breakers?” asks Lisa Mauri Thomas, MS, a job search strategist and author of Landing Your Perfect Nursing Job. List those up front and rank them to give you a sense of what you absolutely won’t accept, she says.
Remember, your dream job could be another nurse’s nightmare, so figuring out what is important to your happiness makes a big difference in finding the job that will suit you. “Like most professionals, nurses can be easily swayed by salary,” says Nancy Brook, RN, MSN, of Stanford Health Care and author of The Nurse Practitioner’s Bag: A Guide to Creating a Meaningful Career That Makes a Difference. “But that shouldn’t be the whole decision if you are trying to establish a career path.”
“Nursing is so stressful,” says Hannon. “Know what will help you balance that stress.” Is time off so you can recharge away necessary? In that case, vacation time might be worth more to you than a higher salary. Do you need a schedule where you can work three 12-hour days so you can have four days off to take care of family? You need flexibility. Will a big jump in pay help relieve your worry over a mountain of bills? Then focusing on your financial goals can help you weigh what’s best for you.
Start Digging Early
How can you find out all this information about a job so you know enough to make the right decision? When you are considering a new position, find out as much as you can during the interview process, but then dig deeper.
“Interviewing is a two-way street,” says Hannon. “You are in the driver’s seat. They think you have something that can make their workplace better.” Both sides are trying to find a good fit, so the interview is when you can ask questions about culture, job duties, and management style, but save any salary, benefit, or flex time questions until you have an offer. Ask your interviewers why they enjoy working at the company, and ask if you can talk to a few people in the department where you would work.
Turn to social media to find out even more. Look up any connections you might have to company employees. See if someone can make an introduction for you. Check out www.Glassdoor.com where former and current employees rate companies.
And if you are hesitant about checking into a company blatantly, you have to ask yourself an important question. “If it backfires, do you really want to work there?” says Hannon. As you gather all your information, think about what might make you want the job. Some common factors include cold cash offers and culture, but there are other ways you can determine if a job choice will make you happy.
Consider Salary and Benefits
Of course, salary plays a huge part in choosing a job offer that’s right for you, and money weighs heavily in most job decisions. “If you’re not being paid what you are valuing your worth, you’ll be resentful,” argues Hannon. Have an idea of your ballpark salary and see if the organization comes close to it. But consider the value of all the other things in the job offer package. Some, like health benefits, might be worth thousands of dollars, while other items might not have a monetary value directly attributed to it (e.g., leadership opportunities), but that might have direct value on your life or lifestyle.
What’s the Work/Life Attitude?
Reflecting on what you honestly want will help you decide if the job is for you, so consider how the job fits into your life and how your life fits into your job—otherwise known as the work/life balance.
“The most important thing when making a decision about the work/life balance is to look at the bigger picture,” says Hannon. “There are things that don’t relate to money but that circle around things that make us happy.”
Flexibility and autonomy are often especially important for nurses. If you have a busy family life, you are probably looking for a schedule that includes flex time to some extent. Although flex time discussions shouldn’t happen until the job offer is made, you can certainly get an idea of how things work by asking other nurses about their typical schedules.
Does the Company Culture Match Your Values?
When you are interviewing, be extra-observant of the people and the surroundings so you can get a sense of what the atmosphere is like. “Does the vibe suit you?” asks Hannon. “Do you think you will fit in there?” Thomas recommends asking to meet with members of your potential team to ask about the leadership style or to describe the mood on the floor.
“Find out who will be your most direct manager,” says Betsy Snook, MEd, BSN, RN, and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association. The fit here is crucial to your future job satisfaction. “People don’t leave work, they leave a manager,” says Snook. When you meet with the team, don’t put them on the spot by asking about the manager, but you can ask about the management style and any challenges they have with the style. Or ask them to give some adjectives that describe the style of management. Brook recommends finding out how long the nurses have worked there. If many have years at the company, that’s a good sign that they are satisfied with how things are going.
“Look at the culture,” says Snook. “Their values, their mission, their vision—does it match your core vision?” Snook says nurses might flock to the latest and greatest hospital in the area, but they should also step back and look at the new leadership as well. “What’s the management style of the leaders? Where did they work prior to here?” If you loved your previous job because you felt like you were part of the larger picture, then consider the overall corporation. “Is this a place where you believe in the ethics there or their purpose and mission?” asks Hannon. And is the organization stable, asks Snook. A quick Google search can reveal any merger talks, financial instability, strikes, layoffs, or worker dissatisfaction.
Is There Career Advancement?
For a strategic career move, assess your bigger goals and figure out how each position brings you closer to meeting a specific goal. “Always think of your next step,” advises Thomas. Career mapping, as Thomas calls it, means that while you might accept a position, it doesn’t mean that is where you have to stay for 10 years.
Quan agrees. “If you are looking to move up the ladder, you have to make choices that make sense,” she says.
If an advanced degree is in your plans, a job package that includes some kind of tuition reimbursement for the classes you want to take will be very attractive to you. Look into other opportunities for learning. For instance, will you be able to learn new things through courses and workshops? Some companies will pay for you to travel to conferences in your specialty. Consider what kinds of new challenges will be available and how you can take advantage of those. And as Snook mentions, make sure the timeline aligns with your own. If their nurse managers typically take a decade to achieve a certain position and you have a realistic goal of achieving that position sooner, will you want to wait?
What if you aren’t looking for lots of challenges? Are you at a time in your life where your health or other personal issues are so demanding that you don’t want to be constantly challenged at work? Be honest with yourself. If you are interviewing for a job that sounds ideal, but that requires lots of travel for training or that will give you a fast track to a management role that you aren’t seeking and wouldn’t be comfortable with, then this isn’t the right job for you.
Do the Nuts and Bolts Add Security?
Finally, throw in all the other small things that can add up when you consider taking a job. “In general, pay is important, but you want to look at lifestyle, too,” says Brook. Does the great health plan include your favorite providers? How long is the commute? It is a traffic-jammed mess that you’d have to navigate every day, or is it an easier ride than your current job? How much will you end up spending in gas (and consider fluctuating fuel costs)? Does the company offer smaller perks? Would on-site child care help you? What about things like dry cleaning services or a wellness program? Do you like the idea of frequent company outings and get-togethers, or does that seem like an imposition on your time away from work?
What about the job expectations? Are you expected to sit on committees? Will you work holidays? Will any of these extras help you get closer to your career goals faster? For instance, will committee work, whether part of your job or as an unpaid volunteer, broaden your network or position you for leadership roles?
What Do You Do With Offers in Hand?
Now that you have a couple offers, you have some wiggle room if the offers are close. Before you make any move, it’s essential to have the job offer in writing, advises Thomas. “If they don’t offer one, you should request one,” she says. You can verbally accept a position contingent on receiving everything in writing—including hours, vacation time, and even any job training you’ve been promised. “Anything you have negotiated should be in there,” Thomas says. “Nurses are good at caring for others, but they have to be their strongest self-advocates. If an employer is shaky on that, I would question if that’s a place I want to work for.”
If you need time to consider the job offers, ask for a few days to crunch the numbers, says Thomas, but don’t mention that you are deciding between two offers. If you really can’t decide, determine what information is missing. If you need to spend time with nurses on the floor, ask to shadow someone. Say your intentions are good, but you need this information to help you make a solid decision, says Thomas. Show respect for their time as well and schedule anything right away.
Saying No Thanks to an Offer
When you do choose one job over another, decline the other position with grace, says Thomas. “You don’t want to burn bridges,” she says. Instead, be very gracious and thank the company profusely for the interviewing opportunity. You can let them know it came down to certain variables—like the shorter commute time or the tuition assistance—the other company offered. As the job market changes so often, you want to keep the doors open and tell them you would like to remain in touch.
As Snook says, you have to do your homework so you know the hard facts, but if you’ve taken the time to figure out your needs and you have all the details on the table, you’ll probably find yourself leaning toward one company. “When all is said and done, you just have to go with your gut,” Snook says.
And take pride in your accomplishments. “You are coming in with value,” says Brook. “Be confident in your ability to bring a good deal of value to the organization and make a decision that is right for you.”
Nursing school is difficult, no doubt, but it pales in comparison to the first year working as a nurse. New nurses face many obstacles they may not have even fathomed while in school. Whether you landed a position in your dream unit or had difficulty securing the first job, the first year out for any nurse is challenging.
Once out of school, many wonder if their first job will be anything like their professors taught. Unfortunately, it’s not, but there are ways to cope with learning the ropes of nursing. A nurse of just over one year, Kelsea Bice, BSN, RN, an emergency room staff nurse at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, realized her first-year nurse training was much different than school. “Most came from preceptor roles. I found it extremely difficult to rationalize my book training with the experience of my preceptors and my own thoughts,” she recalls. “It was very overwhelming at times.” Although it can be overwhelming, here are some key points for newbie nurses to remember when transitioning from student nurse to nurse.
1. Remember that School and NCLEX Do Not Reflect the Real World
Many new graduates struggle with the sheltered environment of school and the hypothetical world of NCLEX when they are in their first job working with real patients. The ultimate goal of nursing school is to teach one how to pass NCLEX. A nurse’s first year on the job teaches the individual how to become a nurse. The two realms massively collide with the first job after school. “The most difficult part of the first year is taking critical thinking from a theoretical/hypothetical situation to a real person in a real bed in front of you,” states Bice.
As a student, the first-year nurse is not exposed to all of the internal policies and systems of a clinical facility. In a new environment, reports may be conducted differently from the ways one was previously exposed to, some common procedures may be completed in an unfamiliar manner, and, when a patient is crashing in a real-life setting, it isn’t always “textbook” like NCLEX. These nuances can be hard for new graduates to grasp without their own experiences to pull from. Once out of school, new nurses soon realize that patient ratios will often be higher than they were while in school. Nurses, especially new nurses, have to really work on honing their time-management skills. When asked how nursing schools can better prepare students, Arthandreale Nicholas, BSN, RN, a nurse at Harris Health Outpatient Medicine Clinic in Houston, Texas, says, “[M]ore clinical hours with realistic nurse-to-patient ratio staffing [are needed] so new nurses can be prepared to have more patients and develop time-management skills.” As any experienced nurse knows, time-management skills will improve with time.
Prioritization also serves a vital role in a nurse’s first year on the job. Prioritization and time management go hand-in-hand; once one is mastered, the other will become easier and vice versa. Nicholas, a nurse of five years, recalls her most valuable lesson in her first year was prioritization of duties. “Make sure to see sickest patients first and get meds passed ASAP,” she suggests. New nurses may not realize how long 12-hour shifts really are—or that they may not get the desired shift they want to work directly out of school. Typical 12-hour shifts turn out to be longer when you factor in commute times, codes at shift change, or a lengthy report. In addition, nursing schools don’t prepare students for difficulty finding their first job in an oversaturated market. Nicholas experienced long days and an undesirable shift firsthand; her commute to her first job, a neuro step-down unit, was 60 miles each way and she worked a “swingshift,” meaning she alternated between night and day shifts. “I only stayed at my first job for four months. The schedule with the commute made me very discouraged, so I actually went months without working until a local hospital gave me a chance,” says Nicholas. New nurses are ill-prepared for these realities since the average nursing school does not typically have students complete a full 12-hour clinical day. In addition, the clinical sites are typically in close proximity to the school.
2. Respect Your Elders
We’ve all heard the phrase “Nurses Eat Their Young” (or “N.E.T.Y.”) when referring to the way some seasoned nurses communicate with newer nurses. Sometimes, there are personality conflicts between people, but most of the time seasoned nurses are just frustrated with the newer generation thinking they know more than they actually do directly out of school. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Seasoned nurses on the unit have a wealth of information to share with you—just be willing to listen.
Bice has her own take on the relationship between newer and more experienced nurses: “Older or ‘more experienced’ nurses say new nurses are coming out of school really cocky or with bad attitudes, but I truly think that’s just the generation gap in the workforce showing through.” Bice believes new nurses can thrive in their first year with more encouragement from seasoned nurses. “I think if new nurses are nurtured through their orientation and supported and offered a safe environment to ask questions, make mistakes, and figure it out, they could be successful on any unit,” she adds.
Newer nurses should also understand that there are multiple ways to carry out nursing duties. Their preceptors may have a different way of doing certain asks. Not all nursing tasks are textbook like they were in school, and this may be a hard concept to grasp when just starting out. Be willing to understand why particular individuals carry out their nursing responsibilities the way they do. And if you don’t like it, put your own spin on it later. Be open to others’ opinions when you first start out—you may realize you have learned something you may not have known otherwise. Take it all as a learning experience.
3. Don’t Cause Waves
One of the quickest ways to become the unpopular nurse on the unit is to act like a know-it-all. No one cares that you had a 3.9 GPA in school or that you passed the NCLEX with 75 questions. All anyone—including colleagues, patients, and family members—really cares about is how you can safely and effectively deliver care to patients. Remember, the first job is to learn how to become a real nurse.
Another way to cause waves during the first year of nursing is to actively complain about your chosen profession. The story plays out time and time again—a new grad comes into the unit and continuously vocalizes how much he or she hates bedside nursing and declares plans to be out of there in one year—on to NP or CRNA school. Doing this usually causes a deep divide between you and other seasoned nurses on the unit. This may be where some of the N.E.T.Y. comes into play.
Newer nurses may feel isolated due to their inexperience, but it’s imperative to ask for help from others when needed. Nursing involves teamwork. In addition, starting a new job and attempting to be a martyr by making fellow coworkers look bad only actually makes you look bad in the long run. One day, you will be on the other end and won’t appreciate the lack of compassion. Everybody makes mistakes, and you don’t want to be thrown under the bus because of one. Learn to speak to your colleagues when a problem arises; it could uncover a learning experience for both of you.
4. Continue Your Education
Just because you have finished nursing school and passed your boards doesn’t mean your education should cease. The real education has actually just begun. Continuing education doesn’t mean you immediately go back to school for an advanced degree; it means continuing to learn in your new role. Jonanna Bryant, MSN, MS, RN, a veteran nurse of 24 years, who is currently working on her doctorate, wholeheartedly agrees. “Learning doesn’t stop after one leaves school, and you don’t have to return to school in order to learn,” she says. As a new nurse, you should be constantly looking up medications, medical terms, and diagnoses that you don’t know. It’s uncomfortable being asked a question for which you don’t know the answer. Not knowing the answers should bother you to the point that you want to seek additional knowledge.
It’s imperative that you continue to educate yourself in your chosen specialty—meaning that if you work in the ER, brush up on triage or work towards your trauma certification. Get your Basic Life Support and Advanced Cardiac Life Support certifications. Read nursing journals, re-read your nursing textbooks, and become involved in professional nursing organizations—anything that will enhance your knowledge base. The education of a nurse never stops.
In addition to learning job-specific skills, learn more about the roles of other health care professionals. Learn the role of a respiratory therapist, physical therapist, and radiation tech—these are all professionals you will work with on a daily basis. Education provides opportunities for you to grow not only as a nurse, but also as a person. Enhancing yourself through education makes you a better nurse and allows you to educate your patients, their family members, and your colleagues.
If you do eventually decide to go back to school for an advanced degree, make sure you master your role in your current position before doing so. Regardless of what some may say, an experienced nurse has an advantage when heading into graduate school. Concepts covered in grad school can be easily grasped with the experience one gains from working as a nurse.
5. Find a Mentor
Many nurses, if not all, may feel they were not adequately prepared for the real world even after finishing school and passing the NCLEX. The type of treatment new nurses receive in their first year can negatively or positively affect their overall career trajectory. This leaves a new nurse either loving the profession and wanting to stay in for the long haul or loathing the profession and trying to leave altogether.
“The first year was hard,” says Nicholas. “I honestly almost broke and thought about other career paths. I’m thankful for the good shifts and grateful patients who encouraged me to keep going.”
Potential challenges one may face in nursing should be discussed and support should be given to newer nurses, both in school before they graduate and on the job. Bice believes having more open, honest discussions with preceptors and other experienced nurses on the job would be beneficial. “Debriefing after incidents, like ‘what could I have done better?’ [and] ‘what will I do differently next time?’ This way, gaps in learning are realized and bridged,” she says.
New nurses should not only be oriented to their new career, but also mentored by seasoned nurses. A mentor serves as an experienced and trusted adviser. Mentorship should be a part of orientation for all nurses new to the profession. Bryant, a nurse consultant for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, also believes in new nurses having a preceptor or mentor for the first year, “…someone who they will follow and be able to ask questions and talk to regarding concerns with their new job,” she says.
The first year of nursing is tough, but manageable with the right mindset. Bice advises the newer generation of nurses starting out to “chill out and listen,” which is in line with Bryant’s recommendations for the first year: “Pace yourself, be thorough, and communicate.” Nicholas wishes she could have told her first-year self to be “more confident” and to not be afraid to question orders she was unsure about. Use their advice to successfully integrate into your new role. Soon enough, you’ll be a seasoned nurse and will be able to give tips to the newbies on your unit.