Don’t Forget the Nurses After the COVID Pandemic | Healthiest Communities Health News

A pre-pandemic lifetime ago, when the World Health Organization said 2020 would be the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, the recognition felt long overdue. Nursing has been America’s most trusted profession for 19 years running, according to Gallup, but the occupation hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect. Too often, people see nurses as doctors’ helpers or mere assistants – the hand on the fevered brow, not the brain helping to bring the fever down.

Then COVID-19 hit and changed all that. As nurses put their lives on the line to fight a mysterious but lethal disease, Americans felt driven to express their gratitude, banging pots and pans, dropping off meals and sending letters and cards. Now, thankfully, case counts are subsiding and we’re taking small steps toward normalcy. But if a return to normal life means a return to invisibility for nurses, the health of the country will suffer.

Photos: Trailers For Nurses

Don’t Forget the Nurses After the COVID Pandemic | Healthiest Communities Health News

The fact is, nurses do much more to treat and prevent disease than most people realize. And that matters, as research indicates the country will be short more than 500,000 nurses by 2030. The best way to attract people to the profession is to give it the respect it deserves. So as we move past the Year of the Nurse and the month of May – Nurses Month – winds down, here are a few of the little-known ways this caring profession is a critical part of our health care infrastructure.

Nurses Often Take the Lead in a Patient’s Care

Most people don’t appreciate just how demanding the training is that modern nurses receive. Most recently licensed RNs have a bachelor’s degree in science; at Northwell Health and other health systems, many of the nurses providing patient care have master’s degrees, and some have doctorates. Every one of them is highly skilled in assessing a patient’s evolving condition and taking action as needed.

These abilities proved vital last year as hospitals attempted to control the spread of COVID-19 by slashing the number of people permitted into patient rooms. Doctors, environmental services technicians and others came and went, but as much work as possible was done remotely. Yet nurses remained at the bedside, because COVID patients were so critically ill, and could decline so rapidly, that someone had to be there. Trained to pick up on subtle, seemingly insignificant changes in a patient’s condition, nurses were often the ones to send up a flare and call for an intervention.

Nurses Are Real-Time Researchers

COVID has made us all familiar with the way new medications are developed for a disease: Phase 1 and 2 trials establish a treatment’s safety, and if all goes well, a phase 3 trial shows that it’s effective. But that’s just one variety of research. Another kind goes on every day at the patient’s bedside.

When COVID-19 started sweeping across the world, nurses immediately began gathering data. They watched their patients carefully, looking for patterns in the way the disease progressed and staying alert to variations in responses to treatment – and after work, they went online to share what they’d seen. It was a supercharged version of watercooler chatter that helped speed deployment of the smallest advance. This on-the-job research helped develop or disseminate lifesaving refinements in care, such as the realization that proning the sickest of patients – keeping them on their stomachs as much as possible – improved oxygenation and could delay or even prevent the need for ventilation.

Was this formal, funded research? No (though nurses do that as well). Was it important? Critically so. The tweaks nurses made to care saved countless lives.

Nurses Improve Public Health

The WHO’s Year of the Nurse was timed to recognize the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Nightingale, the “Lady with the Lamp” during the Crimean War, was much more than a soothing presence for hospitalized British soldiers. She was a public health leader – a statistician and analyst who recognized that abysmal sanitation and nutrition were causing sickness and unnecessary deaths. Her advocacy saved lives. In the same era, so did that of nurse Dorothea Dix, who exposed the inhumane treatment of people with mental illness and created a movement that led to the establishment of dozens of hospitals for the mentally ill.

Nurses are still instrumental in addressing public health challenges. During the pandemic, nurses have been key in identifying the link between socioeconomic conditions and the increased vulnerability of Black and Hispanic communities to COVID-19. They have taken extra shifts to staff vaccination sites in disadvantaged areas. And as front-line demands ease, they will continue to work to address the social determinants of health – from unsafe housing to food insecurity to racism – that leave some in our society particularly vulnerable to illness.

COVID-19 presented one of the greatest tests clinicians have seen in a century, and nurses rose to the occasion with bravery, selflessness and compassion – as well as skill, training and sharp intelligence. Let us not forget what they did. When the next challenge presents itself, we will need all that they can offer.