There is so much for physicians to stay abreast of these days that the challenge of keeping current can be overwhelming. New opportunities for partnerships with medical groups and hospitals, new payment methodologies, new relationships with health plans, and new ways to automate an office from EHRs to data collection are just the start. And that doesn't even touch on new clinical advances in medicine — from emerging pharmaceuticals to breakthrough diagnostic technologies to new possibilities of treatment that seemed unfathomable just a generation ago.
There is another change taking place as well, and it affects one of the most trusted and revered of all healthcare professionals: the changing role of nursing.
Nurses make up the largest segment of the U.S. healthcare workforce with more than 3 million nursing professionals and as many as 19 million worldwide. Physicians and patients have always relied on nurses to provide a comforting hand, supportive voice, and clinical knowledge. But today's nurses do so much more that the profession is being redefined right before our eyes.
Here are five important things physicians should know about today's nurses.
1. Advanced education
Years ago, most registered nurses held a hospital diploma as their highest educational credential, but today it is increasingly common for a nurse to have bachelor's, master's, or doctorate degrees. In addition, many of today's nurses — much like their physician counterparts — are choosing to specialize in geriatrics, intensive care, pediatrics, labor/delivery, or other such fields. These specially trained nurses are more equipped than ever to work with physicians in addressing complex medical issues to serve the patient.
2. Clinical research
Important clinical research, once confined to medical schools, is taking place at select nursing schools across the country; and these collective efforts are making an immeasurable impact on the nation's health. From Yale to Johns Hopkins and from Georgetown to UCLA, nursing schools are focusing on such areas as pain management, improving quality of life, and end-of-life care. They are helping to build the scientific foundation for clinical practice and developing evidence-based knowledge that leads to disease prevention and the better management of symptoms caused by illness.
3. Advocacy for policy and justice
Over the last decade, nurses have become increasingly vocal in advocating for important policy issues. Led by national nursing associations, nurse academicians, and healthcare leaders, nurses are formidable advocates of healthcare policy changes that uphold standards of quality and support patient rights. So, too, nurses are increasingly a force for social justice.Whether working locally with underserved citizens or conducting research in the refugee camps of Africa, nurses are working to educate governments, policy makers, agencies, and communities on connecting the dots between human rights and improved health.
4. Nurse practitioners
A growing number of states are expanding the scope of duties for nurse practitioners, and the timing couldn't be better given the influx of patients through the Affordable Care Act, coupled with the nation's shortage of primary-care physicians.
Nurse practitioners already deliver some medical care, including: prescribing or renewing prescriptions for most drugs; ordering blood tests; performing routine medical examinations; monitoring chronic conditions; counseling patients about prevention; and treating colds and flu.
Primary-care physicians would be wise to look at nurse practitioners as a natural complement to their practices and logical partners in patient care.
5. Public spokesperson
Nurses have a wonderful capacity to combine a bird's eye view of healthcare issues with hands-on expertise in direct patient care. Because of that, nurses are being called upon more and more as an authoritative spokesperson with the media and community forums. So, too, nurses have become credible voices on Facebook, Twitter, and select blogs. It is no wonder that hospitals, health plans, accountable care organizations, and physician groups are turning to nurses to be their "public face" when it comes to framing complex medical issues in terms that laypeople understand.
Nurses are on the front lines of healthcare delivery and more than likely will, at some time, touch the lives of most Americans. Working together in new ways that reflect the changing role of nursing, physicians and nurses can help assure that the healthcare system works better for everyone.
Gloria Sanchez-Rico, RN, BSN, MBA, NEA-BC, is the chief nursing executive at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif. E-mail her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Physicians Practice.