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USA Today: "Professionals sick of old routine find healthy rewards in nursing"

August 17, 2004 -- Today USA Today ran a lengthy story by Julie Appleby on the first page of its "Money" section about the increasing number of persons choosing nursing as a second career. The story is a generally fair example of the "nursing shortage creates great opportunity" genre. However, the vision it offers of a difficult but high-paying, flexible and rewarding job, with no specific discussion of what nurses actually do, arguably understates both nursing's real importance and the critical problems that remain, especially short-staffing.

The story discusses the basic outlines of the global shortage, but it is built around four California nurses who came to nursing after significant periods in other jobs. They are a former foreign currency trader, restaurant catering manager, ballet dancer, and Sears employee. All four find nursing "rewarding but harder than they anticipated." One, who works at USC's hospital, says nursing is "a challenge on an emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual level."

On the whole, the piece provides a positive and respectful but very limited view of nursing. It does do an unusually good job of drawing parallels between nursing and these nurses' prior jobs. It quotes the former currency trader as saying that nursing, like his old job, is "fast-paced" and requires "analytical skills and critical thinking." The former ballet dancer says that the perfectionism her first career demanded has helped her be "super-thorough and accurate" as a nurse. These comparisons are helpful given that too much of the public clings to notions of nursing as essentially menial work.

On the other hand, the piece does not seem sure of the educational requirements to be a nurse, the existence of advanced practice nurses, or what nurses really do for their patients. Its discussion of the actual work is limited to general statements about it being rewarding, and about dealing with life and death, demanding families and physicians who, according to one nurse, "want to be served." The piece does not tell readers whether it is a nurse's job to "serve" physicians (it's not), whether nursing is an autonomous profession (it is), or whether, in addition to "the joy of seeing patients recover," nurses experience the satisfaction of making the recovery happen (they do).

The article stresses that today's "hiring boom and rising salaries" are a "turnaround" for nursing following the layoffs and "increased workloads" of the 1990's, and even discusses efforts to limit excessive shift requirements, including California's safe staffing law. However, it fails to note that short-staffing had or has any effects other than to make life more difficult for nurses. This may not be surprising, given the piece's basic focus, but readers are not likely to understand that short-staffing hurts and even kills patients, or that it remains a huge problem in nursing worldwide, the subject of sometimes bitter disputes between hospitals and nurses.

The story notes the average nursing salaries for different regions, but its focus on California, where a "nurse with experience and some overtime can clear $100,000," may leave readers with too rosy an impression of nursing compensation. Few nurses make $100,000 per year. Interestingly, though the piece notes that the recent surge in nursing school enrollments has been limited by the ongoing faculty shortage, it does not offer figures as to how much nursing professors earn. Instead, it merely states that "[m]any hospitals and chains" are "giving nursing schools funds to hire more faculty." The piece offer no data to show how widespread or significant that support might be, or why there might be a faculty shortage in the first place.

See Julie Appleby's article "Professionals sick of old routine find healthy rewards in nursing" which appeared in the August 17, 2004 edition of USA Today.

Also see a few follow-up letters to the editor.

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