The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the critical role of nurses in hospitals — and the risks they routinely encounter while doing their jobs. The field of nursing, however, is still deeply misunderstood. This is perhaps no surprise: Nurses’ work is often undervalued compared with that of doctors, and almost 90 percent of the nursing workforce is women. Here are five common myths about the profession.
Myth No. 1
Nursing is lucrative.
Nursing is sometimes described as a lucrative career. Since the pandemic began, articles have highlighted the huge demand for these highly skilled professionals, as well as the particularly profitable career of travel nurses — who go wherever they’re needed, sometimes earning $5,000 a week, even more than doctors make.
The reality is that most registered nurses make a solidly middle-class salary. A 2020 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the median annual wage for registered nurses is $75,330 — respectable but not remarkably lucrative, particularly when many employers don’t give pay raises for additional certifications. According to ZipRecruiter, in some states, average salaries hover around $55,000.
Myth No. 2
Nursing is no longer a desirable job.
The great exodus of health-care workers is a pressing concern, two years into the coronavirus crisis. This is evident not just in the steady stream of news stories about fed-up nurses quitting on the spot, but also in viral Twitter videos like one from an ICU nurse who, in an explosion of angry sentiment, quit after 19 months of working in pandemic conditions.
In fact, interest in this career remains high. An NPR segment from October reported that some community college nursing programs have 800 applicants for only 50 openings. Research data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing shows that 2020 enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs increased by nearly 6 percent, enrollment in master’s degree programs went up by 4 percent, and doctor of nursing practice programs saw their enrollments jump by almost 9 percent.
And according to the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment, thousands of foreign nurses, ready to work, are awaiting U.S. visa approval.
Myth No. 3
It’s better to have a doctor treat you rather than a nurse.
It’s widely assumed that doctors are the best at all medical procedures, including starting IVs or drawing blood. This myth shows itself in medical TV dramas like “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” that almost exclusively portray doctors as the only members of a treatment team, or editorial cartoons questioning the merits of nurse practitioners. More recently, physician Sandra Lee, from the reality TV show “Dr. Pimple Popper,” received a lot of negative fallout over a tweet questioning why a WebMD article discussing sunburn vs. sun poisoning was written by a nurse instead of a dermatologist.
One reason this struck such a nerve is that a significant part of what nurses do, besides provide direct medical care, is educate patients and family members. Nurses advise parents on how to care for newborn babies who spent time in the neo-natal intensive care unit. Many procedures typically done by nurses — like placing urinary catheters or, in many states, removing sutures — haven’t been done by doctors since they were in medical school. Furthermore, a physician-run study published in the Lancet research journal found that nurse practitioners performed as well as junior doctors on all procedures and tasks in their emergency department, except two — taking medical history and educating patients at disharge — on which the nurses performed better.
Myth No. 4
The pandemic has made nurses’ jobs dangerous.
Divisive politics have created increasingly risky situations, with health-care workers sometimes getting threats from those who oppose the coronavirus vaccines or want unproven medical treatments for their sick loved ones. This is reflected in headlines like “Health Workers Once Saluted as Heroes Now Get Threats” and “US hospitals tighten security as violence against staff surges during pandemic.”
The reality, however, is that these jobs were dangerous well before covid-19. Nurses and other health-care workers accounted for 73 percent of all injuries and illnesses resulting from nonfatal workplace violence in 2018, according to a BLS report. The Justice Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have long reported that nurses and other bedside care providers, such as medical technicians and nursing assistants, are most at risk for an incident of workplace violence. The Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak in 2017 called nursing one of America’s most dangerous jobs and highlighted an emergency room nurse in Southbridge, Mass., who survived a vicious stabbing; a Massachusetts health-care safety bill was named after that nurse (the measure stalled in the legislature).
Beyond that, roughly 86 percent of registered nurses are female, and the field is still subject to over-sexualized stereotypes. Each Halloween brings a new wave of “naughty nurse” costumes; type “nurses” into the GIF search box of any messaging app, and you’re likely to find sexually suggestive images. Sandy Summers, a registered nurse, argues convincingly that these images fuse “caregiving with easy sex,” creating a dangerous atmosphere of disrespect. One research review found that 43 percent had reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment. Julia Lehman, an emergency department registered nurse, told me that sexual harassment is so common, she builds deflection statements into nurse trainings that she leads.
Myth No. 5
Nurses are superheroes.
Because of the nature of their jobs, nurses often perform remarkably well under stress. But this has turned into the harmful misconception that nurses are somehow superhuman in their resiliency. A contestant on CBS’s “Tough as Nails” cited being a nurse as a reason she should be successful in the show’s grueling competitions. Well-meaning posters, T-shirts and even art from the likes of Banksy depict medical workers in superhero masks and capes; Marvel Comics created “The Vitals,” a comic book featuring nurses in pandemic-related medical adventures. Research shows that the perception of toughness permeates the field.
The sober reality, however, is that living up to this superhero image is impossible — not unlike Luisa in the Disney movie “Encanto,” who is both heroically strong and tragically anxious. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey last year, 62 percent of health workers said worry or stress related to covid-19 had a negative effect on their mental health.
A 2020 study from the University of California at San Diego established a higher rate of suicide in nurses compared with the general population, which led the school to develop a suicide prevention program specifically for those in health fields. This and other crisis interventions help considerably. Code Lavender, an alert system created in Hawaii and championed by the Cleveland Clinic, draws a rapid-response team of traditional and holistic practitioners to help hospital staff or patients within 30 minutes of a report of a particularly traumatic incident.
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