Imagine that the messaging from the beginning surrounding the pandemic was delivered by a nurse. Where would we be now if the most trusted profession had taken the leadership role in communicating to the public?
No doubt we would be in a radically different place. People are exhausted trying to decipher the truth amidst a social media blitz of constant blaming, shaming, and politicizing, which has further divided nurses as well as our nation.
While every country had the same information about the virus, compliance and outcomes were remarkably different. Researchers found that the cause of these variabilities in infections and death rates was the leadership narrative. The context and tone of the messaging was crucial. Two areas contributed to the narrative’s effectiveness: localization and justification.
Localization means that people don’t just accept or reject information, but rather compare, contrast, and then interpret (“localize”) and apply meaning from their own experiences. The message can be grossly distorted unless leaders chose words that resonate with “key cultural themes, historic moments, or deeply held moral beliefs”. Secondly, the message must be broad enough to cross party lines so that people can see themselves participating. While Angela Merkel of Germany crafted a vision of a collective hero, Boris Johnson focused on the individual -hence different outcomes. Justifications for policies need to be clear and consistent. When Boris Johnson broke protocol by shaking hands, it greatly impacted the validity of his message.
The most successful leadership around the virus and vaccine has been delivered by Angela Merkel of Germany and Jacinta Arden of New Zealand. Their ability to listen, state the hard facts and then find the common thread that would link their countries together was what stood out above all. Their messages were clear, urgent, and delivered with both firmness and empathy. Sound familiar? That’s how nurses get patients out of bed when they refuse every day.
As nurses, we demonstrate the qualities listed above because they are intrinsic to our profession and the hallmark of nursing education: empathy, listening, dialogue, clarity, mutual goal setting, patience, and honesty.
What would a National Nurse for Public Health have done differently?
- Used evidence-based information in every decision and not abruptly change science because of supply and demand. A nurse would have demanded the N-95 masks from the start, possibly saving over 3600 health care professionals’ lives.
- Seized the opportunity to respect cultural, religious, and political differences.
- Acknowledged our nation’s deeply held belief in freedom and framed new behaviors as the greatest choice of all: to use our individual freedom to collectively free our country from the virus.
- Engaged in more of a dialogue than an edict while avoiding blame. Nurses do not judge, preach, categorize, or threaten. Caring for our patients (or an entire population) effectively means discussion and mutual goal setting. This has always been a hallmark of our profession. A nurse would hear and acknowledge people’s concerns and then create a forum for discussion so that those who disagree would not have to go underground to social media outlets leaving our citizens to decipher half-truths while networks capitalize on which stories keep their ratings up.
- And finally, nurses would have dauntlessly used their reputation as the most trusted profession to send a firm yet empathetic public message (One of the most critical factors in Denmark’s success was the high level of trust.)
When compliance is critical for achieving public health outcomes, the message and messenger matter. It should’ve been a nurse.
What can be done to place a nurse into such a visible and respected position?
Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, MN, is an internationally recognized patient safety and health culture expert. Kathleen has spoken on leadership, communication, patient safety, and peer relationships to hospital executives and nurse leaders for twenty years.
All of her books come from her passion to understand the stories of nurses. Her books, “Ending Nurse to Nurse Hostility” and “Speak Your Truth” illuminate our relationships with our peers and physician partners. She is also co-author of “The Dauntless Nurse” which was written as a communication confidence builder.
Kathleen is also a guest Op Ed writer to the Seattle Times and has been interviewed twice on NPR’s “People’s Pharmacy”. Her Tedx Talk calls for changing our belief system from a hierarchy to equality in order to keep our patients safe – and also explains how disaster thrust her into ‘the best profession ever’.