14 September 2012

I could almost be a nurse!

UNIVERSITY OF HULL, UK—“I’ve had so much contact with nursing over the past few years I could almost be a nurse.” This statement, or a slight variant thereof, has been uttered in my presence in each of the four universities where I have worked and in others where I have undertaken quality assurance or other external work. The protagonist is, invariably, male; a member of a university senior management team; and coincidentally, I presume, an engineer. Perhaps engineers are more adept than most at “engineering” their way into the higher echelons of university management, but I’ll have to consider that possibility another day.

Before entering nursing, I studied biochemistry at the bachelor and doctoral levels. However, I long ago gave up all pretensions about being a biochemist, not due to modesty, but lest I get “caught out” by a hard question. In the same vein, I have never heard fellow nurses, even though many have been in senior university positions and with significant exposure to other disciplines, claim that the exposure led them to consider themselves “almost a physicist,” “almost a philosopher” or “almost a mathematician.” So, what is it about nursing that leads people to say these things, and what should our response be?

My guess about why people in these positions say these things is that it is due to a subconscious—I am being generous—attitude of superiority about their chosen discipline whereby what they do is considered difficult, and nursing is considered easy. I can only guess further that their image of nurses is immobilised in stereotypes: feminine; middle class; not highly educated; and “caring.”

I would not wish to dress nursing up to be something it is not. Nursing is a practice-based discipline that lies at the crossroads of several disciplines that include life sciences, social sciences and medicine. Nursing, as a subject, may not grapple with the origins of the universe, solving the world economic crisis or designing iconic buildings. Nevertheless, we do deal with the origins of someone’s distress, finding a solution to that stress and helping rebuild people who may become iconic in their own right. And we don’t just do this once, but many times a day and hundreds of times a year.

We don’t do it alone; we work in partnership with many professions and have to know more about them than they ever seem to know about us. It may look easy but, reflecting on my own clinical practice many years ago and the kinds of problems I currently address in my research, it certainly doesn’t feel easy.

My response to statements such as the one at the top of this post used to be a polite laugh; followed by a stony face and then a grimace, with an inwardly expressed gratitude that the person found their métier elsewhere. I have, more recently, decided to return to smiling and inwardly expressing gratitude that, however easy it seems and however hard it actually is, I found my own métier.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.


  1. Roger,

    I had a waitress try to explain to me that as she was cleaning her dogs ears, she thought "I could like totally be a nurse".

    I just smiled and thought it was a good thing that she was not a nurse.

    Great Blog Post!

  2. Thinking, like that described in “I could almost be a nurse” is a prime example of lack of awareness of what nursing is. Media portrayal of nurses has a role to play in shaping people’s perceptions. I am sure you must also meet people who say that they wanted to be something else eg doctor, physiotherapist etc, but realised that these professions are much more academic and because “I am not very academic”, therefore thought of joining nursing instead. These statements are worrying. I always encourage such people to have a look at the nursing curriculum or description of courses to ensure that they understand what they are committing to. How would someone who doesn’t like academic work or thinks nursing is less academic survive in nursing? It is an academic field and requires many of the skills of these other professions
    In fact, nursing is a more challenging field than many others as nurses act as a central point and link with all these professionals while providing care to a patient and therefore are required to have an understanding, not only of their own field, but other related professions which, some people consider, more academic than nursing.
    It is important to improve the image of nursing and to ensure that the general public, especially those interested in joining the nursing profession, understand that there is academic work which is an important element of nursing and, without skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and decision making-required by all other professions, becoming a nurse is impossible.