We often hear nurses described as dedicated, empathetic, trustworthy, and even heroic — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while there are plenty of adjectives we can attribute to these life-saving professionals, the job often seems too complex and dynamic to capture in one, easy-to-read definition.
Fortunately, the American Nurses Association (ANA) handles this herculean task each time they update the Scope and Standards of Practice guide. And, earlier this year, the association released its fourth edition of the guide, which included a new regulatory model and standards as well as an adjusted definition that succinctly answers the question, “What is a nurse?”
Here’s the new definition, along with insight into how the role of nursing is changing.
What is a Nurse?
According to the ANA’s updated definition, the role of a nurse can be explained as the following:
“Nursing integrates the art and science of caring and focuses on the protection, promotion and optimization of health and human functioning; prevention of illness and injury; facilitation of healing; and alleviation of suffering through compassionate presence. Nursing is the diagnosis and treatment of human responses, and advocacy in the care of individuals, families, groups, communities, and in recognition of the connection of all humanity.”
The definition, along with the rest of the updated guide, resulted from careful deliberation by a team of 17 diverse nursing experts. Volunteers spent hours crafting the new content to ensure it adequately reflected the roles and responsibilities of a modern nurse.
What Has Changed in the New Definition?
So, how does this differ from the previous definition written in 2015?
The new definition includes four key additions:
- Art and science of caring: This phrase acknowledges that nursing is not only rooted in the science of medicine, but also in the art of caring for others — including all the soft skills, like interpersonal communication, and innate attributes, like empathy.
- Human functioning: This term replaces “abilities” in the previous definition, likely because abilities vary from patient to patient, but human functioning encompasses a broader concept.
- Compassionate presence: This is a vital part of compassionate healing, which Patricia Bartzak, DNP, RN, CMSRN, TNCC, ABLS, defines in American Nurse as “A bidirectional phenomenon.” She says that “as we provide presence, we can feel another’s presence and, in this moment, there’s a sharing of experience and energy.”
- Recognition of the connection of all humanity: This phrase acknowledges something that has always been a crucial part of nursing — and medicine in general. As John Sanford Limouze, MD, wrote in an article for the Harvard Health Blog, “the meaning of medicine is in its human connections.”
How is the Role of a Nurse Evolving?
The nursing profession has changed quite a bit since the days of Florence Nightingale. In fact, nursing duties, expectations, and perceptions have undergone a tremendous metamorphosis in just the last decade.
Here’s what’s changed:
The physician shortage has created a unique opportunity for nursing professionals. As doctors grapple with increasing demands, nursing professionals are fielding more responsibilities than ever. Nurses with more advanced degrees, like nurse practitioners, can now diagnose patients and write prescriptions (in some states). Meanwhile, RNs are enjoying more autonomy and, depending on the setting, a lot more recognition and respect.
As nursing becomes more specialized, so do university programs. Anyone interested in pursuing a nursing degree or continuing their education can select from concentrated degrees in fields like cardiology, pediatrics, bariatric medicine, and more. Additionally, nursing education has become more accessible. Today, colleges and universities offer more online programs and flexible options, which means you don’t have to stop working to earn a more advanced degree.
A 2017 study published in Nursing Outlook found nursing was becoming more diverse, with more men and people of color entering the field than ever before. As healthcare systems implement more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, we expect to see the nursing landscape continue to change for the better.
Healthcare technology is advancing at rapid speeds. Today, nurses work with electronic medical records, more sophisticated wireless and wearable devices, telemedicine, and more. And while some healthcare organizations offer on-the-job training to help staff keep up, many nurses are responsible for educating themselves. And, as we move forward, technology will only become more critical to the role of a nurse.
Nurses are no strangers to change and have always found a way to adapt their knowledge and skills to organizations’ and patients’ evolving needs. As the definition of nursing expands, we anticipate the role of nurses to become even more critical to the way hospitals and practices treat patients, and to the future of healthcare in general.