Why We Need to Remove “Just a Nurse” From Our Vocabulary

Beth Hawkes MSN, RN-BC - 02/27/18

Kelley Johnson, RN, and former Miss Colorado, is credited with being the catalyst for the Show Me Your Stethoscope (SYS) movement. In the 2015 Miss America Pageant, Kelley was unjustly criticized for wearing a stethoscope and became famous when thousands of nurses protested the criticism. The grassroots movement SYS was born from the event.

But sadly, even Kelley used the term “I’m just a nurse” during her monologue in the pageant. Much as many nurses would like to eliminate this phrase from our lexicon, it’s still ingrained.

It’s telling that some nurses describe themselves by saying “I’m just a nurse”.

Doctors don’t say “I’m just an internist”.  Likewise, football players don’t say “I’m just the lineman”.

So why do some nurses still say “I’m just a nurse?”

Why Are Nurses Not Empowered?

Maybe the better question is why are nurses not empowered? With over 3 million nurses in the United States, nursing should be a cohesive and incredibly powerful group...but it’s not. There are many reasons, one of them being gender. Nursing has traditionally been a women’s occupation and as such reflects the low status and profile of women in our society in general.

As females we are quick to self-deprecate. Male nurses are far less likely than their female counterparts to put themselves down by saying “I’m just a nurse”.  Females tend to minimize their accomplishments and are socialized to brush off compliments and praise. Have nurses internalized society’s values or have nurses taught the public to think of them as “just a nurse?”

Nurses in the Media

The media is notorious for portraying nurses and doctors inaccurately and perpetuating stereotypes. Nurses as sex objects. Nurses as doctors’ handmaidens. Nurse Ratchets. Nurses as... invisible.

Some examples of misleading media portrayals include doctors cheerfully wheeling a patient out to the car for discharge (often with a balloon bouquet) or administering a life-saving injection with a syringe deferentially handed to them by an attractive young nurse.

Nurses shake their heads and laugh at how preposterous these portrayals are. Recently I tweeted about a sweet elderly patient who patted the hand of her doctor. 

“My, my, young man, you are so good! Have you thought about going on to become a nurse?”

Needless to say, the tweet was very popular.

Nurses Fail to Articulate What They Do

Nurses themselves have a hard time explaining what they do. And that’s a big problem in itself. If nurses are unable to articulate their contributions and what they do, then likewise, the public can’t be expected to understand.

 Teachers instruct. Doctors diagnose. Pilots fly. Nurses...nurse? Start IVs? Administer meds? It’s complicated.

If you’re a nurse, you understand the complexity of the role. If not, you really don’t. How many patients have said “I was a patient and now I appreciate what nurses do”?  This is true even of doctors who become patients.

Nurses often wrongly define themselves as a list of tasks they perform, such as She Who Starts IVs or Passes Meds.

 But inserting a foley, changing a dressing, or performing a finger stick doesn’t define a nurse. Med techs in many settings start IVs and administer meds- and that doesn’t make them a nurse.

Nurses are the quintessential example of the total being more than the sum of its parts. The practice of nursing is so much more than a series of tasks.

What Nurses Do

Knowing when to check a finger stick, expertly assessing a wound, reducing catheter associated urinary tract infections (CAUTI) and other healthcare associated infections (HAIs), are better examples of what nurses do. It’s the critical thinking and clinical expertise that define nurses and what they bring to the healthcare team.

Nurses interpret and coordinate. Direct and oversee. 

Doctors are present mere minutes a day. Nurses vigilantly monitor patients around the clock. Twenty-four/seven. Nurses save lives far more often than the general public knows.

Nurses catch important changes in condition. Recognize early signs of sepsis. Temperature is down? There’s a source of infection? An experienced nurse is alarmed at a temp of 96.8, a heart rate of 110 and a source of infection..

Never minimize your contributions and skills.  After all, you would not say “All I did was just recognize the early warning signs of sepsis, intervene, just give a fluid bolus, just order a lactate and cultures and just transfer the pt to ICU” 

All this before lunch while caring for 5 other patients.

Nurses Ensure Safe Passage

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) coined the phrase “Nurses ensure safe passage”.

Nurses ensure safe passage through illness and chemotherapy. Nurse ensure safe passage through childbirth and at end of life, through the dark hours before dawn, and everything in between.

Nurses are central to the heart of healthcare and can begin to change perceptions by one word. Or more correctly, the omission of one word. The word “just”.

Nurses do themselves and the profession no service by saying “I’m just a nurse”. Leave out the “just”. If you hear a colleague use the phrase, gently correct them.

Let’s move past the “I’m just a nurse” and on to proudly “Hello, my name is (blank) and I’m your nurse today”.