“Just a nurse”: The devaluation of the nursing profession is undeserved

“I’m just a nurse.”

These are the words my professors made me swear never to speak during my first day of nursing school. I never said those words because I never believed them. I’ve always respected the nursing profession and, in general, I disagree at all with devaluing a much-needed component of a functioning society.

Yet ironically, as a registered nurse who is no longer in the nursing profession, I find that those five words stuck with me more than ever when I was actually a practicing registered nurse (RN). It’s not because my new job in food security and nutrition is too challenging or because I don’t feel like I belong. My Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Master of Public Health and Master of Art in Food Security prepared me well for my current field of work and study.

But when I disclose that I received my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (and that I used to be a registered nurse), I see myself being devalued in a matter of seconds by the eyes of many.

I have found that the disrespect that nurses often face in clinical settings – from deliberate, unsafe understaffing by administration to physical or verbal abuse by patients – is a by-product of the widespread devaluation of the nursing profession.

My personal experience of this off-field disparagement includes comments aimed directly at me such as, “You’re pretty good at it [my statistics course] for a nurse’, and comments I overheard such as, ‘You know she’s just a nurse, right?’ not applicable”. I have faced a multitude of obstacles since graduating when entering job interviews for myself and my nursing background.

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Despite graduating with honors from masters degrees in the same specialties as the positions I applied for, I was faced with questions about my competency as a nurse.

If the word ‘nurse’ had been replaced by another clinical profession – say ‘doctor’ for example – I am convinced that the same deprecation would not have taken place.

Part of the problem in many situations of devaluation is ignorance. For anyone who doesn’t know exactly what a Bachelor of Science in Nursing entails, let me shed some light on the experience.

It’s a fast, rigorous program. The first two years, for all students pursuing science disciplines, include so-called “eradication courses” which include courses such as zoology, microbiology, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, nutrition, as well as a variety of theory courses on the social determinants of health.

In my anatomy and physiology class, I had the opportunity to dissect a human cadaver, which is commonly known as an essential part of medical school education – less known as part of nursing preparation.

After the first two years, you must apply to be admitted to the second two years, officially known as ‘nursing school’, where you will learn about the pathology and pathophysiology of almost all communicable and non-communicable diseases. You’ll also learn more about each class of drugs, possible side effects, and how they interact with specific medical conditions.

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After such extensive and demanding training, nurses enter the field only to be frequently looked down upon by physicians, thinned out by hospital administrators and – as the icing on the cake – reminded that they are “only” a nurse, as if there were some sort of hierarchy.

If it wasn’t noticed before the COVID-19 pandemic, now anyone with eyes can see the important role nurses play. It’s nurses who stay by the bedside for more than 12 hours at a time, nurses who perform technical tasks, nurses who spend time getting to know patients intimately – which allows them to spot relevant changes in patients’ condition, which can occur in the rapid Rounds might be overlooked by other clinicians.

We are experiencing a nursing shortage. which will only last until we begin to address and change the devaluation of the profession inside and outside of the clinical setting.

I initially left the profession because my interest was aroused by the societal determinants of health. I decided to continue my studies to work at a level high enough to bring about real change in health and nutrition systems through the influence of politics and scientific discoveries.

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I did so in a manner not dissimilar to how, say, a doctor would leave his or her profession to study and work on a broader scale. The difference is that while doctors are occasionally asked why or how their interests developed, I don’t think people would question their ability to be successful in their new field of work, and they certainly wouldn’t a risk to be considered due to their degree.

As I begin my PhD at Hopkins, I feel a breath of fresh air that my interdisciplinary and diverse academic and professional background is fully appreciated here. Maybe there’s a reason.

I’m proud of those two letters after my name and always will be. To anyone who is still unconvinced and continues to hold derogatory views of nurses, professional nursing experience, and nurses’ abilities to succeed in and out of the profession, I urge you to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing .

Alexandria Richter is a graduate student from New York, NY doing her PhD in Health, Behavior and Society with a focus on food security. She works at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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