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Nurses Can’t Care for Us if We Don’t Care for Them

May 9, 2022, 10:00 AM, Posted by Beth Toner

After two years of a pandemic, nurses are more stressed and burned out than ever, and too many are leaving the profession. What are the systemic changes needed to truly support them? 

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I confess I have felt ambivalent about Nurses Week since 2011, my first year as a second-career registered nurse. Back then, in addition to a full-time communications job, I was working weekends in a long-term care facility. Despite having no experience other than clinical rotations just nine months before, I had been given a short orientation that I essentially had to structure myself; I was then thrown onto a skilled nursing floor with 15 residents during the day and 32 residents at night—most of them unable to walk on their own, some with dementia, and all with at least one chronic condition. I was hanging tube feeds, flushing central lines, and dressing stage IV pressure ulcers, all while trying to keep everyone safe and happy.

My colleagues and I received many tributes during Nurses Week—a message from the administrator, posters and food in the break room, giveaways. Don’t get me wrong; the gestures and the sentiment were lovely. But what I wanted more than encouraging emails and pizza was help. What I wanted was permission to say “I’m scared and could use some more support,” but nursing culture there—and in many places, still—was “sink or swim.” Not long after, I decided to “swim” out of long-term care, rather than make an error that would cost me my license or, worse yet, a resident his or her life.

I’m not telling you this so you’ll feel sorry for me; I’m telling you this because I have come to realize that I wasn’t alone in feeling frightened and overwhelmed on the job. Almost anyone who takes their nursing responsibilities as seriously as they should has felt that way at one point or another. And now, this Nurses Week, with two years of this awful pandemic under our belts, nurses—particularly those on the front lines—are feeling more stressed and burned out than ever; many are leaving the profession.

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What Nurses Can Teach Us About Health Equity

May 5, 2022, 1:00 PM, Posted by Nacole Riccaboni

I talked to a fellow nurse about inequities in healthcare settings, our own experiences with bias, and the importance of acknowledging and confronting the harms associated with structural racism.

Nurses wearing masks.

In Manhattan’s financial district, the average resident can expect to live until the age of 85. In East Harlem, life expectancy is only 76 years. Ten stops on the subway and a nine-year drop. That’s what Jasmine Travers, a nurse and New York University assistant professor, told me when we talked about the importance of digging out the root causes of health disparities.

As Black women in the nursing profession, both of us understand the need to “get real” about structural racism because we’ve seen how it plays out at the patient’s bedside and in our own professional lives. In fact, Jasmine left hands-on nursing to pursue research into the policies, practices, and structures that impede good outcomes. Talking about the realities of racism isn’t easy, but being uncomfortable isn’t an excuse to avoid tough conversations. The goal is not to accuse or shame anyone, but rather to shine light on enduring inequities, the forces that perpetuate them, and the ways we can heal the damage they do.

As an example, Jasmine described differences in how hospital staff sometimes approach pain control. The immediate response to a White patient’s complaint tends to be “let’s see how we can ease the pain.” But patients of color face more scrutiny. Too often, the first question a healthcare provider asks is, “what’s really going on here?”—the assumption being that pill-seeking behavior needs to be ruled out before considering the use of pain meds.

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Good Things Happen When Nurses Lead

May 2, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by Najaf Ahmad

A retired nurse CEO says we need nurses in government, on the boards of for-profits, and mentoring the next generation given their powerful role in influencing people, policies, and systems.

Mentor the Next Generation of Nursing illustration.

Maria Gomez has had her finger on the pulse of our healthcare system and the people it serves throughout her storied, 30+ year career running a community health center that serves a low-income, immigrant community in greater Washington, D.C. Maria entered the United States at age 13, started Mary’s Center after becoming a nurse, and helped grow it into a powerhouse serving 60,000 people each year. Mary’s Center helped pioneer an integrated model of healthcare, education and social services to put people on a path to good health, stability and economic independence. In 2012, President Obama presented Maria with the Presidential Citizens Medal. She retired in late 2021. Here, in the second part of a two-part interview, she reflects on the challenges facing our healthcare system, how nurses can continue leading efforts to meet them, and what we can learn from the pandemic.

What are the greatest challenges facing our healthcare system?

Today, it’s all about the numbers—the number of patients you see and the number of minutes it takes. Because that’s how you get paid. To transform lives, we need to change how we address patient needs. Providers can’t do it all in 15 minutes. Some are so overwhelmed by the numerous demands on them that they’ve grown numb to what their patients are feeling. Too many smart, incredibly passionate people who devote themselves to healthcare have become disheartened, burned out, and are even leaving the workforce. This is the most discouraged I’ve seen providers in my career.

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Everyone Has a Role in Building the Future of Nursing

May 13, 2016, 11:30 AM, Posted by Beth Toner

Nursing students working on a mannequin during a class.

Six years ago, I graduated from nursing school at the age of 40-something—a feat accomplished while working full time, attending class and doing clinical rotations nights and weekends—with no small amount of support from my husband, my teenage children and my almost-3-year-old.

Frankly, when I graduated, I should have given each of them a gift for their support.

Instead, my then 15-year-old daughter gave me a copy of the book Critical Care by Theresa Brown, who, like me, was a second-career nurse. She’d heard her interviewed on National Public Radio and thought I might enjoy it. What I read in that book got me through some very rough overnight shifts when I was working per diem at my first job in long-term care. Her book reminded me that every new nurse is scared, tentative and not quite sure of her or himself. Yet somehow we muddle through, and we do the very best for our patients.

Fast forward to 2013, and I’d come to work at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Why School Nurses Are the Ticket to Healthier Communities

May 11, 2016, 9:37 AM, Posted by Susan Hassmiller

A visit to Mt. Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Delaware, highlights the critical role that school nurses play in fostering healthier kids and communities.

Close-up of a girl getting her blood pressure checked.

Robin Wallin, DNP, RN, first became concerned about the unmet dental needs of children attending the Alexandria City Public Schools in 2000 when one of the school nurses she supervised participated in a multidisciplinary evaluation for a kindergarten boy named José who could not sit still in class.

Upon examining his mouth, the nurse discovered gaping black holes where teeth should have been. She helped find an oral surgeon willing to treat José—who came from a low-income family without health insurance—free of charge. As it turned out, once José’s teeth were treated he no longer struggled with sitting still in class.

This experience led Wallin—who was then the Health Services Coordinator for the Alexandria City Public Schools in Alexandria, Virginia, and now serves as the director of health services at Parkway Schools in the Greater St. Louis area—to wonder if other kids like José struggled with school due to underlying oral health problems.

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Identifying the Causes of a Persistent Health Disparity: High Blood Pressure Among African-Americans

Jan 29, 2015, 7:31 AM, Posted by Jacquelyn Taylor

Jacquelyn Taylor, PhD, PNP-BC, RN, FAAN, is an associate professor of nursing at Yale University and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars program (2008-2012). She recently received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research, a department of the National Institutes of Health, to conduct a large-scale study on the influence of genetic and psychological factors on high blood pressure in African-American women and children.

Human Capital Blog: Congratulations on your new grant from the National Institutes of Health to study blood pressure in African-Americans. What will be your focus?

Jacquelyn Taylor: African-Americans have the highest incidence of hypertension of any racial or ethnic group in our country. Studies show that some medications don’t work very well in reducing blood pressure in this population, and we are convinced that some other underlying mechanisms are at play. My co-principal investigator, Cindy Crusto, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Yale School of Medicine, and our research team and I will be studying two of those—genetic markers and psychological factors, such as perceived feelings of racism, mental health, and parenting behaviors—in our study. We want to know what effects these variables have on increases in blood pressure among African-American women and children over time.

HCB: Does this study build on your earlier work?

Taylor: In a previous study in Detroit, I looked at gene-environment interactions for high blood pressure in three generations of African-American women and identified hypertension risk alleles in grandmothers and in their daughters and granddaughters. Then I replicated the study in West Africa, where people live the same way as they did in the 1400s—in clay huts, with no running water, no sanitation, and no fast food as in the developed areas such as Detroit. The West African Dogon sample were mostly underweight, participated in large amount of physical activity, and had a limited but healthy diet. But they still had the same genetic markers for hypertension that I had identified in the sample in Detroit.

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‘Good Morning, My Name is Aara’: Building Trust in Health Care

Jan 28, 2015, 8:00 AM, Posted by Aara Amidi-Nouri

Aara Amidi-Nouri, PhD, RN, is associate professor of nursing and director of diversity at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellow (2014-2017) and has served as a project director for the RWJF New Careers in Nursing scholarship program at Samuel Merritt University since 2009.

Trust. Our health depends on it, and so do our lives.

Our very first stage of personality development as infants starts with trust, according to renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. A newborn’s basic needs—food, shelter, and clothing—are entirely entrusted to a caregiver, one who hopefully recognizes that he or she does not yet have an ability to shiver, sweat, or shed tears.

When caregivers are attuned to babies’ environments and hunger cues, they are able to meet their needs and build their trust in other human beings. When caregivers hold newborns close, they meet their need for love and affection, building trust with every heartbeat and with every breath. We are social beings, dependent on one another. We must trust one another in order to survive. It’s no coincidence that our pennies—our most basic form of currency—are engraved with that very word.

What happens when, instead of building trust, we create mistrust? What happens when we can’t trust our health care system or our health care providers—our own caregivers, the very people who hold our fate and our lives in their hands? 

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Like a Koala Bear Hanging Out in a Tree: Anxiety and Excitement as a Nurse Starts Her PhD Journey

Jan 26, 2015, 9:00 AM, Posted by Laren Riesche

Laren Riesche, MSN, RN, is a nursing PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. With clinical experience in neonatal nursing, her research focuses on the role of the placenta in fetal programming and its effect on health and disease throughout the life span. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Careers in Nursing alumna and an RWJF Future of Nursing Scholar

I have been extremely fortunate to have had great leadership development opportunities throughout my nursing education, thanks in part to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). I have been privileged to be selected for two RWJF nursing education scholarship programs which are not only helping build my leadership skills, but also shaping my perspective on the importance of nurse leaders.

I am one of 16 nurses in the inaugural cohort of the Future of Nursing Scholars program, which supports nurses earning their PhDs. This August, we all participated in a leadership development workshop that was part of the very first scholars’ Boot Camp. The event was intended to help us prepare to complete our nursing PhDs in three years.

One of the activities involved choosing and then discussing a picture that represented our fears; we chose from more than 200 picture-cards that bore a wide range of images, from nature scenes to cityscapes, family events to individual athletes, and everything in between. I chose a picture of a koala bear hanging out in a tree. What I saw was a koala, all alone with nothing to hold onto but a single tree branch. It tapped into my fear that I was throwing everything I had into my PhD program, pushing my family and friends away, and losing myself in order to stay focused on finishing in three years—and maybe, in the end, the only thing I would have to hang onto was my degree.  

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Nurses Are Leading the Way to Better Health Care for Older Patients

Jan 21, 2015, 12:00 PM

Barbara Bricoli, MPA, is executive director of Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders (NICHE), an international program based at New York University’s College of Nursing that is designed to help improve the care of older adults. The program was developed by Terry Fulmer, PhD, RN, FAAN, chair of the National Advisory Committee for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program.

The rapid expansion of the aging population is a national concern. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population will be over age 65 by 2030, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. And our aging population will place a heavy burden on our health care system; older adults, in fact, are hospitalized at three times the rate of the general population.

Yet health care providers lack adequate training in geriatrics and gerontology to care for older patients. Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders (NICHE) is working to change that.

Based at New York University’s College of Nursing, NICHE aims to better enable hospitals and health care facilities to meet the unique needs of older adults and embed evidence-based geriatric knowledge into health care practice. Hospitals and organizations that adopt NICHE report improved outcomes, decreased lengths of stay, better patient and staff satisfaction levels,  and higher success in building systemic capacity to effectively integrate and sustain evidence-based geriatric knowledge into practice.

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Calling All Nurses to Address Health Disparities

Jan 16, 2015, 10:11 AM, Posted by Susan Hassmiller

I spent the 2014 holiday season reading a book by Sarah Wildman called Paper Love. She describes how she, as a journalist, examined the fate of her Jewish predecessors, including her grandfather and his long lost love. I selected the book because my father was a Jew of Polish descent.

Wildman describes the horrific atrocities bestowed upon the Jews. Of course I knew of the Holocaust growing up, but as I get older, the connections between past and present seem to be more important. While I don’t know of any relative who was personally affected or killed, someone in my extended family very likely was. I pondered my own existence and how it may have depended on a relative escaping Europe and immigrating to the United States to escape the death camps. It is unspeakable how one man’s view of what is mainstream or normal sent so many others to their death.

I am not naive enough to believe that prejudice is a curse of the past. Stark data on health disparities continue to mount. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on Health Disparities and Inequalities (2013) found that mortality rates from chronic illness, premature births, suicide, auto accidents, and drugs were all higher for certain minority populations.

But I believe passionately that nurses and other health professionals can be part of the solution to addressing these disparities. Nurses are privileged to enter into the lives of others in a very intimate way, and that means lives that are, more often than not, very different than our own.

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