Nursing in the 21st century – A changing profession

Nursing has changed a great deal over its lengthy history, from palliative care and minor wound treatments at the very start of the Common Era to the development of hospitals, professional training, and the use of advanced medical technology in patient care. Never has it changed more rapidly, however, than in the 21st century. Today’s nurses must be more adaptable than ever and are required to continually enhance their learning. This article looks at how continual innovation is creating a nursing environment like nothing ever seen before and how nurses themselves, both individually and collectively, are rising to meet the challenge.

Further professionalization

In light of the way it is conducted today, it’s strange to look back and realize that nursing has only been a recognized profession for about 170 years. This means that, compared with many other professions, it’s still in the early stages of developing its infrastructure. This is an ongoing process which is likely to be further affected by the demands on nurses created by emerging technologies.

The most significant year for 21st-century nursing in this regard was 2004 when the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) issued a recommendation that every nurse engaged in advanced practice should have a Doctorate of Nursing Practice, expanding on previous efforts to replace recognized experience with more formal credentials. Some of these credentials were deemed more of a hindrance than a help, however, and in the same year, the Nursing License Compact was launched, making it easier for nurses to move between states without having to be issued new licenses, which essentially just confirm that they have previously accredited skills. More and more states signed up for the arrangement, which currently covers 33 states.

Changing duties

Part of the reason for the big focus on formal qualifications and standardization is that today’s nurses need a much wider range of skills than their predecessors. This century, their role has extended to carrying out physical examinations and health assessments, making referrals to medical specialists, and ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests and other lab tests, such as those required for the monitoring and management of chronic conditions. This has been driven partly by a desire to improve efficiency within clinical environments and partly by an increase in respect for nurses’ professional status, but also by the fact that the increased use of health information technologies (HIT), especially electronic health records, makes it much easier for multiple people to be involved in making decisions about treatment without compromising safety.

Where IT skills were once considered a specialty, it’s now essential for every nurse to have them and to have the flexibility to adapt to frequent system updates. While this means increased pressure in some ways, overall, it makes the job easier because it has massively simplified ward management and reduced delays in practically every area.

Changing healthcare challenges

These new technologies could not have come at a better time, as the pressure created by an aging population, a larger population of people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities, and the Covid-19 pandemic mean that it has become essential to get more done with fewer members of staff.

Increasingly, hospitals are introducing robots to help fill the gap by providing support with tasks such as delivering medicines and samples to the right places. This enables nurses to spend more time focused directly on patients – who are also changing and are increasingly well-informed about their own healthcare needs. The flip side of this is that nurses need to spend more of their time countering misinformation absorbed from social media.

Technology taking the strain

Some technologies are helping nurses in a much more immediate and practical way. The increase in the number of patients who need help to stand or move around has been balanced by the emergence of significantly improved lifting devices and more adjustable beds, simplifying care and reducing the risk of injury. Meanwhile, new technologies are simplifying or speeding up a lot of minor day-to-day procedures, from taking a pulse to checking blood sugar levels, reducing stress for patients, and saving nurses valuable time and energy.

Digital nursing

In the past, nurses in community settings spent a lot of time shuttling patients in and out of examination rooms or traveling to visit them at home. The experience of the pandemic provided a huge boost to communication technologies and helped many resistant members of the population to take the plunge and learn to use them. This has made remote consultations a much more practical option. Although they are not suitable for every patient, as some checks and procedures still need to be carried out physically, they can save a lot of time while allowing nurses to spend more time actually talking to patients.

New ways of learning

Just as areas of nursing itself are moving online, so is nursing education. There has been a boom in the distance learning over the past few years, and even though practical skills still need to be acquired on the ward, moving other elements of study to a more flexible platform has huge benefits. The online DNP program at Baylor University, delivered through the Louise Herrington School of Nursing, gives registered nurses with BSN or MSN qualifications the chance to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice through classes that are much easier to fit around changing shift patterns and the daily demands of the job than any traditional arrangement. Online learning makes it easier to acquire the skills needed to keep up with the escalating pace of technological development.

With so much happening, there has never been a more exciting time to work in nursing. Nurses’ input is essential to ensure that new technologies are employed in helpful and effective ways, and there are lots of ways to get involved in studies and consultations, even if you’ve only recently entered the profession, as a wide range of viewpoints are needed. Nobody knows the needs of the profession better than those who work in it, and nurses themselves have a crucial role to play in designing the healthcare systems of the future.

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