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Q: Don't you want nurses to be compassionate? You seem uncomfortable when nurses are described that way, and you focus instead on nurses' training and skills.

A: We value compassion in nursing. Sensitive emotional support is one of the most important things that nurses (and other health professionals) can provide to their patients.

However, nursing is often described solely in terms of tenderness, love, devotion and similar qualities--qualities that are also associated with mothers and angels. Thus, the profession is often associated with qualities that do not depend on years of college-level science training. The "angel of mercy" theme runs through everything from popular television to figurines, and many nurses themselves endorse this vision of the profession. As a result, much if not most of the public views nursing solely in those terms--not as the work of highly skilled professionals of both genders, but as a kind of paid mothering service, a place for females without other options. Of course, even the "emotional support" that nurses give is informed by their training and experience; it is not something that just any nice person could do. And emotional support can have real positive effects on health. But when nurses do it, it is less likely to be recognized as a professional skill.

The reason we seem to focus so often on the more technical, "harder" aspects of nursing--such as nurses' university training, advanced skills, and cutting-edge research--is that those are what the media tends to ignore. But they are critical to a full understanding of the value of nursing. Again, anyone can be compassionate, but not just anyone can be a nurse. Journalist Suzanne Gordon has noted that, while she certainly values nurses' emotional support, if given a choice between a compassionate nurse and a one whose skills could save her life, she would pretty much take the life-saver. It is this life-saving side of nursing that we feel the public and health care decision-makers really need to understand.

Also see Center FAQ: Are nurses angels of mercy?

last updated: December 2, 2004

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