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“Have you heard the one about the nurse who…?”
by Donna Wilk Cardillo, RN• April 24, 2012Career, Career Magazine, Certifications, Donna Wilk Cardillo, Lists and Ideas, Male Nurses, New Nurse, Nurse Myths and Misconceptions, Nursing Student Advice, On & Off Duty, Patient Care, Print Magazine Archives, Seasoned Nurse, Winter 2010 Print Issue
Myths and misconceptions abound in every profession, and nursing is no exception. Sometimes these myths come from colleagues, sometimes from people outside the profession—either way, they don’t serve us well. So, next time you hear a stereotype you know is nonsense, use your know-how to clarify, inform and enlighten.
Myth: “Real” nurses work in hospitals.
Fact: More than half of all nurses work in hospitals, but that doesn’t make them more “real” than the rest of us. I used to work in an emergency room, and I can tell you for certain that I have been as much a nurse since I left as I was in the hospital (I’ve done everything from conducting medical exams for insurance companies to preparing nurses to take their boards for an education company).
Yet, from the day I stepped out of the hospital into the world of nontraditional nursing, the questioning (“Why did you leave nursing?”) started. And it has never stopped. I always give the same answer, very calmly and very proudly: “I never left nursing. I’m still a healer, teacher and nurturer.” I have a very broad view of who a nurse is and what a nurse does.
While many of us wear scrubs, there are still nurses who wear uniforms, business clothes, even overalls. Being a nurse is about who you are, not about what your wear or where you work.
Myth: Patients like to be called by their first names. It’s just friendlier.
Fact: With all the available techno-communication—from email and IM to MySpace and YouTube—we’ve become an increasingly informal society, and sometimes we automatically address people by their first names. Many patients are more comfortable with formality in the health care setting, and the use of surnames and titles helps maintain the professional relationship. Plus, there are many people, especially older individuals, who consider it disrespectful to be addressed by their first names.
The bottom line: Be sensitive to your patients’ preferences. It’s probably safest to start out with formal forms of address and progress from there.
Myth: You can always tell a good nurse by how much she or he knows.
Fact: An excellent store of information and experience is essential in a nurse, no question about it. But a deep sense of empathy and compassion are equally important. A nursing instructor at a community college told me that she always explains to new grads, “Patients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Myth: Apart from the language issue, most foreign-trained nurses find that working in an American hospital is not much different from working in their home country.
Fact: Foreign-trained nurses now account for about five percent of the total United States nursing workforce, and are an intrinsic part of our health care system. Thank goodness, because there are some parts of our country that are suffering from a nursing shortage. Most foreign-trained nurses, despite their high skill level and excellent training, still have to sort out a host of cultural issues and professional expectations that they often hadn’t expected.
Nurses from the Philippines, for example, who make up nearly half the foreign-trained nurses, usually find they have much more responsibility here. They also have to be more independent and use more critical thinking skills. Why? Because in the Philippines, most hospitals are teaching hospitals, and the residents and medical students do most of the procedures. When they get to the United States, nurses find, for example, that they’re required not only to start IVs, but are also supposed to interact with doctors and patients’ families, even if they’re not the charge nurse; additionally, they’re responsible for discharge planning and case management. Add to all this a brand new language, and you can really see what foreign-trained nurses are up against.
Myth: One of a nurse’s main responsibilities is to help doctors do their jobs better.
Fact: Nurses are not secondary caregivers, but highly educated, skilled and autonomous members of the primary health care team who make independent critical decisions about the care of their patients. While it’s true that some nurses are extremely deferential to doctors, and some doctors are domineering types, those roles are rarely, if ever, the norm.
Myth: If you’re a male nurse, you must be gay—or a doctor wanna-be.
Fact: Men have been part of the nursing profession for eons; in fact, they were some of the first nurses. While men are a growing force in the profession today, they remain a minority and, as such, they’re often subjected to the prejudices and preconceived notions by the general public. But old stereotypes die hard. The reality is that even if the nursing profession were to become more gender balanced, you’d still probably hear the “male nurse” label—just as a woman MD is usually described as a “female doctor,” even today.
Despite the stereotyping, every man in nursing that I know has no regrets about his career choice and the opportunities it offers.
Myth: Nurses are famous for “eating their young.”
Fact: You’ll always encounter nurses who are less than pleasant and helpful to younger colleagues. But that describes the human race, not just the nursing profession. Most nurses do support other nurses.
Several months after I graduated from nursing school, I heard that one of my former classmates was giving the student nurses on her unit a hard time. A colleague and I confronted her, saying something like, “Have you already forgotten what it was like to be a student? Are you trying to make yourself feel superior in some way by busting them?” She looked embarrassed and got defensive, but apparently our “intervention” had an impact because things improved immediately.
When something like this happens, look at it as an opportunity to shatter the stereotypes, put an end to the feuds, dispel the myths and start spreading some positive messages about nursing. You have the power to create change.
Myth: There’s a hierarchy of nursing specialties, and some are “better” than others.
Fact: I’ve heard ICU nurses referred to as “snobs” who “think they’re so smart.” ER and recovery room nurses are sometimes disliked by the floor nurses because they just “dump their patients on us.” Psychiatric nurses are commonly accused of trying to psychoanalyze everyone, including their nursing cohorts. Nurses in administration, case management and quality improvement are often called “traitors” who abandoned those “on the front lines.”
Although it’s true that there can be clashes among the various specialties, we all have the same heart, soul and spirit—a combination of our education and experiences, which is enhanced by our capacity to care and to give. We don’t operate independently of one another; rather, we’re each a mirror image of one another. Different but equal, like spokes on the same wheel.