There are just over 4 million nurses in the United States, and as Gallup’s most trustworthy profession for two decades running, one would think that nurses’ voices would be heard loud and clear on topics of import about individual health, medicine, public health, and the delivery of patient care. As the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, nurses’ voices should be suitably amplified so that citizens and legislators with functioning ears can hear them loud and clear, but many of us know that nurses’ voices frequently are often overlooked, ignored, and simply too silent.
Nurses play myriad roles
The question of why nurses’ voices and opinions matter is strengthened by the trust placed in the profession by the public, and nurses should be emboldened by that annual display of collective confidence. However, there’s much more to it than what’s become the same old trope of the public’s trust. Think about it: nurses work in a plethora of settings where their observations, skills, knowledge, and expertise are essential, life-saving, and make enormous contributions to society on a daily basis.
Nurses are frontline workers, but not just when it comes to global emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic. We can all visualize nurses in emergency departments nationwide being on the front lines of both the opioid crisis and the epidemic of gun violence enveloping our country. But let’s look beyond the obvious.
School nurses are, in essence, a public health bulwark in many rural communities where a primary care provider could be dozens of miles away, if not further afield. Even though many school nurses must cover multiple schools each day, the value of their presence in the lives of millions of children and families is immeasurable. And nurses in medical practices, clinics, federally qualified community health centers, colleges and universities, dialysis centers, and day surgery facilities are crucial components of the healthcare infrastructure.
The importance of nurses’ roles in society can’t be overstated. For this reason alone, what they have to say matters more than many people might realize, including our legislators and the media.
Why nurses’ voices matter
If nurses are all we say they are—ubiquitously caring and compassionate, the most trusted professionals, defenders of health, warriors of wellness, and frontline workers extraordinaire—then their opinions should carry enormous weight in our society.
Who can speak to the health concerns of school-age children and adolescents? Who has a front row seat to the ravages of gun violence and substance abuse? Who has their finger on the pulse of mental health? Who understands the multiple public health threats we’re facing? Who knows what it’s really like at the bedside in our acute care hospitals?
Nurses are the holders of insights into the health of the American people. Nurses see it all, but who asks them about what they know? And how many nurses openly share? When the proverbial feces hits the fan, do members of the media reach out to nurses, or is it more customary to have a physician expert on speed dial? Although more nurses were interviewed and covered by the media during the thick of the pandemic, this is far from the norm.
If nurses want to be heard, if they want the public, the media, and our legislators to know what they do and how they think, then nurses need to seek out opportunities to make their voices heard.
Be the messenger
As Bernice Buresh and Suzanne Gordon wrote in their seminal book, From Silence to Voice: What Nurses Know and Must Communicate to the Public, “Envision how things would be if the voice and visibility of nursing were commensurate with the size and importance of the nursing profession.” If only this is how it was. Buresh and Gordon also shared, “Just as people recognize that it takes someone with education and expertise to perform brain surgery, they would know that it takes someone with education and expertise to care for a patient who has just had brain surgery.”
The authors have it right—the media and the public must be made aware of what nurses know and experience. From the same book: “If the public doesn’t understand the significance of nurses’ work and the context in which it takes place, it will be difficult to correct conditions that drive nurses out of the clinical setting and even out of the profession. Similarly, it will be hard to attract the best and the brightest young people into the profession and keep them in it. If the public and opinion makers are to allocate adequate financial resources to support nursing, they must have a good idea of what nurses really do. If the work of contemporary nurses is unknown or misunderstood, then nurses cannot be appreciated or supported and cannot exert appropriate influence in healthcare. And if they can’t do that, nurses will have difficulty delivering appropriate, high-quality care.”
Nurses can serve as messengers via letters to the editor and op-ed pieces; social media; nursing blogs; interviews on podcasts, radio, and television; letters and face-to-face meetings with local, state, and federal legislators; and all other manner of communication, including conversations with friends, neighbors, community members, faith leaders, and others. How many nurses are emboldened to meet with their state legislators to discuss local and regional issues of import? Who among our more than 4 million nurses share openly and candidly on social media? How many nurses have launched podcasts and blogs, or write letters to the editor and op-ed pieces?
There is currently a growing and mighty cadre of nurse podcasters fueling the airwaves with opinion, insight, and expertise. A considerable number of nurses share salient and timely information and reflections on social media, and through blogs and articles, but I would venture that the number of nurses on the speed dial of local or national journalists is fairly small.
We continue to make inroads, but we can do more. The profession has so much to say, and has the brain power and knowledge to say it. We can be the messengers, the evangelists of nursing thought. We obviously have the numbers, and we need only the individual and collective will to lift up our proverbial megaphone, step onto our soapbox, and let the voices of nursing roar.
Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, and author.
With two decades of nursing experience, Keith understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s podcast, The Nurse Keith Show, offers inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful lives and careers.
Keith’s message of savvy career management reaches nurses worldwide and he can be found on social media, as well as at NurseKeith.com.