No one can say nursing is a stagnant profession. Even freshly minted grads can feel they are scrambling to keep up with new procedures, technologies, treatments, and processes. If you’re a nurse, you might start to wonder what skills you will need to succeed and stay current in the coming years.
There are a few qualities shared by all successful nurses. Being an excellent multitasker, having empathy, and being nearly obsessed with details never failed a nurse. No matter what your specialty, your location, or your aspirations, experts agree that a few skills in your wheelhouse will not only advance your career, but also help you satisfy your goals of being the best nurse for your patients.
“The first thing you have to have if you want to be the best nurse possible is you have to really want to do it,” says Leigh Goldstein, assistant professor of clinical nursing at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. “You really have to want to be a nurse and not just bring people pills and plump pillows. To get there, you have to put in the hours and put in the study. There’s that little thing in you that tells you, ‘This is it,’” says Goldstein. “It makes learning all the other skills easier.”
LaDonna Northington, DNP, RN, BC, professor of nursing and the director of the traditional nursing program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, agrees that nurses need a passion for the job. “This is not for the faint of heart,” she says.
Looking ahead, here are some of the essential skills nurses will need to meet job demands at any career juncture.
Develop Critical Thinking/Critical Reasoning
The best nurse thinks outside the box. Adapting to changing situations, unique patient presentations, unusual medication combinations, and a rotating team takes awareness. Assessing and evaluating the whole picture by using the critical thinking developed in school and on the job is essential to success.
“Nursing is not like working in a bank,” says Goldstein. “It’s not 9 to 5. It’s always a unique set of circumstances. You have to tailor and adjust the care you deliver based on the picture the patient is giving you.”
According to Northington, nothing in nursing is static. Nurses can’t usually just treat one patient issue—they have to determine how the patient’s diagnosis or disease has affected them across the lifespan, she says. And nurses have to consider not just the best choice for the patient and the best option for the nurse right now, but they also have to consider those things in light of the city they are in, the timing, and the resources they have at hand or that are available to them.
Make Friends with Technology
Nursing moves fast, but technological advances are sometimes even faster. While new nurses might lack years of direct patient experience, they often have essential technological familiarity. “Most nurses are probably aware that the world of electronics has just taken over,” says Barbara Vaughn, RN, BSN, BS, CCM, chief nursing officer of Baylor Medical Center in Carrollton, Texas. “The more senior nurses who didn’t grow up in the technology world tend to struggle more than nurses who grew up with that.”
With apps that allow nurses to determine medication dosages and interactions and websites that allow patients access to electronic health records, technology is an integral part of modern nursing. “Technology is changing how we practice and will change how nurses function in the future,” says Vaughn.The benefits are incredible. Instead of having to make the time-consuming drive into the ER when needed for an emergency, a specialist might now be able to save precious minutes by first examining a patient remotely with the help of monitors and even robotic devices. Nurses will have to adapt to this new way of doing things.
Nurses have to practice with technology to gain a fluent understanding, says Vaughn. Vaughn, who is studying for her PhD, says she didn’t grow up with online training as the norm, so when her new classes required online work, she wasn’t prepared. Realizing this could be a hindrance, Vaughn asked newer nurses about how to do things, and she practiced navigating the system until she became better at it.
Whether you are accessing patient records, navigating online requirements for a class, or learning a new medication scanning program, technology will improve your work day and help you take better care of your patients. In the meantime, Vaughn just recommends playing around with the computer when faced with something new. In her own department, Vaughn recalls some nurses who were especially stressed out about learning the new electronic health records system. With training and practice, they excelled. “They were later identified as superusers for their unit,” says Vaughn with a laugh.
Adapt to the Broader Picture
With all these developments comes new and greater responsibility.
“As an inpatient nurse, you used to worry about the 4 to 6 days when the patient was under your care,” says Vaughn. “Now if you are in a hospital based setting, you are going to be more involved in patient population health.” That means an inpatient nurse not only has to get the whole story of what happened before the patient arrived at the hospital, but also think about working with the care team to give specific instructions for when patients get home that will be practical.
“The more specialized medicine gets, the more fragmented health care becomes,” says Northington. Technology and that broad view can help reign that all in—and nurses need to know how the puzzle pieces fit together and where and how patients are receiving care.
“More patients will be followed in nontraditional health care settings,” says Vaughn. “Our world and the world we know is going to change,” says Vaughn of the health care industry. With more patients being followed by health care centers in easily accessed sites like Walmart and Walgreens, telemedicine is going to become more important to understand and to navigate.
Practice Effective Communication
Thirty years ago, communication about patient care was effective, but certainly not at today’s level, says Northington. “We have to communicate,” she says. “You have to ask, ‘What do you know that I don’t know that can help this patient?’ or ‘Are these therapies contradictory?’ Nurses are in that integral place to facilitate that interprofessional education and communication.”
Good communication isn’t always easy. Beth Boynton, RN, MS, author of Successful Nurse Communication, says the most effective communication is based in speaking up and in listening.
Especially in fast-paced and dynamic health care settings, the underlying interpersonal relationships can have a huge impact on how colleagues communicate and relate to each other. Nurses need to not only recognize the dynamics at play, but also learn how to work within the environment.
“We all think this is easy,” says Boynton, “but we have to recognize this is harder than meets the eye. Be patient with the learning curve.” Nurses might be assertive about speaking up for their patients’ needs, but not for their own, explains Boynton. So, as nurses look to the future, they should be mindful of not only fine-tuning their ability to speak up, but also listening to both patients and colleagues in return without judgment so everyone can work towards the best possible outcome.
“The nurse of the future has to stay committed to learning,” says Northington. “Take what the research is saying and use the best practices. Ask the questions like, ‘Why are we doing it that way?’ and ‘What can I do differently that will produce a better outcome?’”
To be the best nurse, you must stay current in the newest developments. Take the time to learn new procedures, but also recognize where your skills need updating. For example, if you know you’ll need to deal with chest tubes, don’t just assume you’ll know what to do when the time comes. Make an active effort to gain current experience.
Develop Mentoring Relationships
Every nurse needs a mentor. It doesn’t matter what your role is, how many years of experience you have, or even how many months you have been practicing. If you want to advance and learn the intangible skills needed to excel in nursing, you need to actively cultivate a mentoring relationship. Nurse mentors are often found at work, through networks, or within professional organizations.
Refine Your Personal Compass
A little bit of a thick skin will do wonders for any career nurse. “You have to defend your patient from everyone and take care of them,” says Goldstein. That means when a physician makes a call you disagree with or you overhear an unfriendly comment, you need to speak up when it matters and let it roll when it doesn’t.
And some of the personal work nurses have to do isn’t easy, including reflecting on and adjusting for any personal feelings or prejudices they have about patients in an open and honest manner. “We need to be able to take care of people no matter what their circumstances or color or what they did to get here,” says Goldstein. “You can’t treat patients differently. You need to take care of them and not make a judgment.”
Prepare for the Unexpected
You never know what your day will bring, so lots of personal reflection, discussions with others in your profession, and cultivating skills can help you when you are faced with something you’ve never had to deal with before.
“I think whether you are starting out as a new nurse or you are a seasoned nurse, nursing care is constantly changing, and being flexible to those changes is paramount,” says Princess Holt, BSN, RN, a nurse in the invasive cardiology department at Baylor Medical Center in Carrollton, Texas. It’s not easy, she says, to constantly adapt to new approaches and new practices, but nurses need to sharpen their focus. “When I get frustrated, I always go back to put myself in the mindset of my patient I am caring for or of my physician who is making this order or of the family I am taking care of to find new ways of looking at it. It grounds me and helps me understand.”
Developing all the coping skills to deal with job stress is a personal approach that nurses will cultivate as they go.
“New nurses don’t always take care of themselves and the emotional baggage you take with you,” says Goldstein. “You have to incorporate those experiences into a coping strategy that you have to develop on your own. Every nurse needs to figure out what they need to do to handle that.” And if you aren’t able to really learn how to cope, nurses must have the skills to either recognize that some kind of career shift is necessary (maybe even just moving from the ER to postpartum, suggests Goldstein) or to be open to hearing it when others recognize it.
Recognize Your Private Life Impacts Your Career
Nurses have to realize their career choice is 24/7. And while you have to balance your life and leave the hospital behind, you also have to somehow adapt to always being a nurse first. Family picnics can turn into a mini diagnosis session, neighbors might ask you to look at a child’s rash, and your private life can impact your job very directly in a way that won’t happen in other professions. “Nurses are held to a higher standard than the average citizen,” says Goldstein.
Learn Where to Learn
Yes, nurses in school learn the hands-on nursing skills like hand hygiene and infection control, says Goldstein, but, like any nursing skill, mastering them takes time.
Some hospitals have new nurse orientation programs that help new nurses acclimate to the setting, but if you don’t have that option, rely on your own observations, ask questions, and take classes to help get you up to speed. When you’re on the job, watch others to see how they incorporate things like patient safety into their routine interactions with patients. And Holt, who has worked in departments from ER to interventional radiology, says moving around builds skills. “I have seen it all,” she says, “and there is still more to see.”
Put It All Together
When nurses consider all the skills they need to succeed, some are easier to gain than others. “You need to understand what goes on behind all the mechanics,” says Northington. “It’s the knowledge behind the skills you need. They can teach nurses things. Nurses have the rest of their lives to learn things. We need nurses who know how to think, to problem solve, [and] who know when they are in over their heads to call for help. The most dangerous nurse is one who doesn’t ask a question.”
And nurses must keep moving forward and adapting even when the pace seems relentless. “We’ve come a long way,” says Northington. “And in 20 years, nursing won’t look like it looks now. Nursing is one of the best careers because it’s always evolving.”