Dec. 14, 2001-Jan. 10, 2002
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Nurses convene congress to strengthen their voice

By Matt Kelly

Nurses need to change their image, journalist Suzanne Gordon stressed at the
Health System’s first-ever Nursing Congress Dec. 7.

Gordon, who has written several books about health care and nurses, gave the keynote address at the meeting, held at the Rotunda. In her remarks she railed against stereotypes and insisted nurses should be seen as knowledge workers in the health care industry.

The 64-member congress, elected from among the 1,600 nurses at the Medical Center, met to brainstorm its concerns, which will be presented to the Nurses Cabinet in the coming year. The congress was formed to give nurses a greater voice and foster communication among nurses at the Medical Center.

Included in the issues the nurses outlined in their afternoon session were promoting a realistic view of bedside nursing, expanding nurses’ voices in budgetary and care decisions and improving communication procedures, as well as calling for greater rewards and recognition.

In her remarks, Gordon blamed the historical structure of health care, in which nurses were allowed power and knowledge only if they pretended they did not have it. Nurses were supposed to describe their work altruistically, say it was a calling, not a job. She ripped persistent advertisements, many of them commissioned by hospitals, that refer to nurses as angels.

Gordon said there are two shortages in nursing — a shortage of people willing to work under the current conditions and people unwilling to be nurses when there are many other career opportunities open to them.

People still consider nurses second class, thinking they are not as smart as doctors or not willing to put in the time doctors do, she said.

Nurses need to be proactive and work to change their image — with the press, the public, the medical profession and with themselves.

Nurses sometimes sabotage themselves, according to Gordon. A nurse who identifies herself only by her first name, or in language that makes her sound like the property of a doctor or a hospital, is sending the wrong message.

“They act like they don’t have their own knowledge, like they are borrowing it from the doctor,” Gordon said.

She insisted that nurses use their first and last names when introducing themselves and she urged the nurses to call doctors by their first names, if the doctors persist in referring to them by their first names only.

They also need to change the conditions at work, Gordon urged, including authority to make decisions, appropriate staffing levels and case loads, so nurses can spend more time with patients and attending on-going education.

Nurses need to communicate with the public, to remind people their work is important. Hospital public relations departments should promote them as well, she said, to give a better picture of what nurses do.

To perform theair jobs, nurses have to be good communicators, but they don’t tell their own stories because they are afraid of breaching confidentiality. They could talk about their work in general terms, but using specific details to express the difficulty and tragedy they face daily.

“You deal with illness, suffering and death,” she said. “People are not at their best when you see them.”

She gave the nurses an exercise to think about the experiences that show what they do and how they would describe and illustrate it. Two nurses then got up and told their stories. Once the tales were told, Gordon and other nurses complimented and criticized them. After the critique, Gordon urged them to hone their stories to help explain their jobs. She said they should used terms like “consult” when describing their interaction with doctors.

“Nurses don’t talk about what they do” she said, but they should take opportunities to explain their jobs to family and friends. “They need real rewards, like raises and social respect.”


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