This article is part of a special series sponsored by AARP featuring the Future of Work.
May is National Nurses Month, and sadly, nurses, our nation’s most trusted profession, are tired, discouraged, and leaving the profession after three long years of COVID. But the fact is we need nurses, the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, embedded throughout our communities, to provide care for those in need, including older adults. Below are tips to help all of us support nurses this month, and beyond.
This post was originally published on AARP Public Policy Institute’s Thinking Policy Blog and has been edited to adhere to ASA style.
We keep hearing that we as a country have moved on from COVID. But we are here to tell you: nurses have not. This pandemic has changed our profession forever. For three long years, nurses have shown up again and again, every single day, to provide care for those in need, often at the expense of their own health and well-being. They have tapped into their well of compassion and resilience to meet the challenges and attempt to keep you safe and help you heal. And many nurses have given more than anyone should be expected to give—including their lives.
Nurses across the country are exhausted, discouraged, and are leaving their roles or the profession in droves. Maybe you’ve seen the headlines about the nursing shortage reaching crisis levels. It is time for a recalibration. Americans have identified nurses as the most trusted profession, in or out of healthcare, for two decades. It is time to back up that sentiment with action.
Nurses are clinicians, educators, researchers and policy makers.
We recently conducted an informal online survey asking colleagues in nursing how the public, their patients and their friends and families, can support nurses. We took what they told us and distilled it into the 10 ideas below. If everyone in this country did one or more of these simple things, we could begin to heal the heart of healthcare, together.
- Learn what nurses do.
Contrary to historical images and old stereotypes, nurses are highly trained professionals with a wide range of skills, tools and specialized knowledge to help people prevent or respond to health challenges. They are trained to provide holistic care based upon reliable evidence, to help patients make informed decisions, and be a trusted guide through the healthcare system.
Nurses work in communities, schools, clinics, homes and hospitals. They are clinicians, educators, researchers and policy makers. And importantly, they have been your ally and your advocate. They would appreciate it if others learned what it means to be a nurse during these complex times. Here is a quick read that offers a sense of the breadth and depth of the nursing profession.
- Show respect.
You can trust that it’s mutual. “The nurse practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person,” says the first sentence in the Nursing Code of Ethics. Nurses are dedicated to providing respectful care for everyone; they deserve the same from their patients and the public. We understand you are stressed, worried, and angry, but please don’t take out your fear or anger on the people who are trying to help you.
Before you speak or react, pause to consider, Is what I am about to say or do respectful? Is it necessary? Will it be beneficial? Is it directed toward the person who can address my concern? Will it have consequences for me or this person or the person for whom I am trying to advocate?
No one should be treated with unkind or disrespectful speech or have violence used against them. Pause before speaking or acting. Consider how you would want to be treated if you were at the other end of the stethoscope.
- Share your concerns with the right person.
Nurses at the point of care are not policy makers, nor do they determine your treatment plan. Many of the issues arising in healthcare right now are not of their making. If you have concerns, share them through the appropriate channels. Most hospitals have a patient relations or patient experience office. Start there. Write a constructive letter to the leaders of the hospital outlining your concerns. Ask to speak to a nurse supervisor. If your concerns relate to your plan of treatment, ask to speak with the clinician in charge of your care.
- Don’t hesitate to say thank you.
Right now, there is a serious shortage of nurses to provide care for the people who need it. Adopt the mindset to be kind to the nurses who showed up. We need to keep all nurses who can serve in the workforce so that you can get the care you need, which they want to deliver. For many, you are the reason they have sacrificed so much to keep showing up. Thank your nurses for showing up and for their care, expertise, and concern. If you are inclined, write or convey a message of gratitude to the leaders where the nurse is employed. You also can be a voice for nurses. Tell your neighbors, family and friends the difference the nurse made in your healing. Write a letter to the editor about a positive experience or share it on social media!
- Do your part to lighten nurses’ workload.
You probably expect that nurses will always be there when you need them. But right now, the nursing workforce is depleted, in every sense of the word. So, who will care for you if you need 24/7 care in a hospital? Without nurses, hospitals cannot provide care that optimizes outcomes for you. The best way for you to reduce your need for hospital care right now is to invest in your health. Take steps to be proactive in identifying health needs instead of waiting until you are sick. There is a lot each of us can do to stay healthy and stay out of the hospital, and that’s a win-win.
- Seek out factual information.
It’s hard to know who to believe these days. Many people suffered or died during the pandemic because of misinformation. Make sure you are using reliable, evidence-informed sources rather than opinions expressed in social media or on the internet. Be an informed consumer. Nurses can and want to help you!
- Ask questions.
When you must be in a healthcare environment, be an informed consumer. Ask nurses questions with a mindset of curiosity and respect. Clarify expectations—what can you expect and what is expected of you as a patient or care partner? Determine how you can be involved in your own or your loved one’s care and treatment. Partner with nurses to ask the questions you may be afraid to ask but need to know.
- Reset your expectations.
A hospital has never been a hotel. Safe, quality care is our top priority. In the hospital setting, nurses know that you might be scared and anxious and we want to be able to spend more time with you. But sometimes it’s just not possible. You might consider asking your nurse how many patients they are caring for to help understand that they must prioritize where they put their attention based upon their patients’ needs. Talk with your nurse about what is most troubling and urgent for you and come up with a plan for how to work together effectively. Recruit a family member or friend to be present when you feel most vulnerable. And try to remember that nurses don’t make the rules about how many patients they have.
- Be an ally.
Many aspects of the healthcare system are not working—for anyone. Without healthy workplaces that support nurses to fulfill their commitments to the public, the healthcare system is unsustainable. Healthcare institutions, government and the public will need to support nurses to do what they do best—care for the sick, injured or people with disabilities in any setting in communities across America. Use your voice, words, influence and advocacy to remove barriers to safe, quality care delivery, assure compensation commensurate with education and responsibility that reflects the true value of nurse’s contribution to health and healing, and organizational mandates to create healthy workplaces.
Voting is a key way to exercise your power as a consumer. Make sure you are registered to vote. Ask candidates about their proposals to address the nursing shortage, improve the work environment, recalibrate compensation, and create protections against violent acts against nurses. Tell them your story of when nurses have made a difference and why investing in them is wise and necessary.
Susan Reinhard, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a senior vice president at AARP, directing its Public Policy Institute and chief strategist, the Center to Champion Nursing in America and family caregiving initiatives.
Cynda Rushton PhD, RN, FAAN, is the Anne and George L. Bunting Professor of Clinical Ethics in the Berman Institute of Bioethics and School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University, with a joint appointment in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics.
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