My brother once spent a month in the intensive care unit (ICU) after a car accident. During that time, his doctors would breeze in the room, look at his chart, and spend a few moments discussing his care before popping back out.
His nurses, however, were there 24 hours a day. They changed his bandages, washed his hair when he started to smell, and didn’t flinch when he made some very inappropriate comments after a bad interaction with some of his medication.
The women and men who care for others as nurses are professionals. Never “just a nurse.” Nurses are equal parts healthcare providers, patient advocates, therapists, and superheroes. Most of us though, don’t realize just how vital nurses are in day-to-day hospital operations.
We asked nurses to weigh in on what they wish patients knew about their job. What they shared with us just might surprise you.
1. "One of the things that annoy nurses the most is when people say, 'I think I have this diagnosis because I looked it up on Google.'"
Thanks to Dr. Google, people can look up aches and pains online. In moderation, googling symptoms isn’t so bad, but it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of cyberchondria. It starts by looking up that niggling pain in your stomach.
Before you know it, you’ve diagnosed yourself with one of the rarest incurable diseases in the world.
Among people who used online symptom checkers, 67 percent later sought unnecessary medical treatment. Excessive visits to the emergency room or doctor’s office place a greater strain on nurses who already have a full patient load.
Because people seek unnecessary treatment as a result of online research, nurses have less time to spend caring for patients who are in need of medical treatment.
What’s more, nurses and doctors say, is that cyberchondria often leads patients to try to treat their symptoms on their own, which can land you in the emergency room even if you were perfectly fine before.
Instead, nurses and doctors recommend that if you feel sick or are in pain, it’s always best to simply call your healthcare provider to see if you need to come in to be seen.
2. "In the ICU, it's frustrating when patients say we're neglecting or ignoring them…when in reality if I'm not sitting outside my patient's room then I'm in another room helping with a patient who is crashing or coding."
In critical care units, nurses are trained to deal with life-threatening medical conditions.
Although ICU nurses often have a much smaller patient load—typically one to two patients at a time, emergency patient situations often arise that demand a nurse’s full attention until a patient is stabilized.
According to one ICU nurse, “It took me a few years to not hate my job, and that was when I realized you’re not going to have a quick fix with all of your patients.”
3. “We need lunch breaks and bathroom breaks too!”
Although restroom and lunch breaks are figured into the salaries of many nursing professionals, most rarely get to take a break during shifts that can be as long as 12 to 24 hours.
That’s because most nurses are supposed to take breaks using a buddy system, in which a nurse covers the patients of a nurse who’s on break.
However, according to research done by NPR, one “nurse says she rarely stops. Not for 12 hours. She's an emergency room nurse in a busy urban hospital. The ideal, she says, would be one nurse for every three patients in her ER. But she typically cares for five patients or more—often eight, if she's covering for a colleague taking a lunch break. She says there are times when she can't leave patients' bedsides.”
The inability to take a break is one of the biggest reasons for nurse burnout on the job. In fact, the majority of nurses feel “stressed, overworked, underappreciated, and underutilized.”
Ultimately, this affects a nurse’s ability to provide the best patient care. In some states, nurses have taken action, winning legal battles to take appropriate breaks. When they get those breaks, nurses are happier, and patients receive better care.
4. “Could you please stop talking while I am trying to listen to your heart/lungs?”
While you’re busy explaining your symptoms in great detail, your nurse is busy trying to assess your vital signs. A patient’s blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and respiratory rate determine the next steps in their care, which is why it’s extremely important to stay silent during this examination.
Vital signs ought to be the most reliable pieces of information in a patient’s file, but when a nurse is distracted at the time of examination, the results are often incorrect. This can have serious consequences for a patient's health.
For example, a patient might receive an inaccurate diagnosis based on the vital signs that were recorded.
So don’t take it personally if a nurse cuts your conversation short. Although chatting with your nurse might make you feel more at ease, your nurse is simply trying to stay focused on providing the best medical care.
5. “I understand you are sick, and I am here to care for you. But I am not your maid, and this is not a hotel, it is a hospital.”
Hospitals have started offering more amenities to patients, in part because insurance reimbursements are now directly tied to patient satisfaction. In one survey, patients were asked to rate how quickly they received help after pressing the nurse call button without indicating if the help requested was medical in nature.
“Patients have complained on the survey…about everything from ‘My roommate was dying all night and his breathing was very noisy’ to ‘The hospital doesn’t have Splenda.’ A nurse at the New Jersey hospital lacking Splenda said, ‘This somehow became the fault of the nurse and ended up being placed in her personnel file. …Many patients have unrealistic expectations for their care and their outcomes,’ the nurse said.”
Both hospitals and hotels often have cable television, but that’s really where the similarities end.
A nurse’s main focus is on overall patient care. If an immobile patient asks for more water, a nurse is more than happy to accommodate that request. However, if you’re perfectly capable of fluffing your own pillow or changing your television station, think twice before pressing the call button.
6. “You know that you are having surgery, that we are operating on you, and that you are going to be naked on an operating table. Please, for the love of all things, wash yourself and clean your belly button!”
Nurses, like most people, appreciate general good hygiene in others.
Bathing immobile patients is part of the job, but most nurses draw the line at patients who show up for scheduled surgery smelling less than fresh.
It’s not just because nurses have delicate noses. Bathing before scheduled surgery is recommended in most medical offices to help prevent post-op infections.
Please note that although nurses want you to be clean for surgery, they do advise skipping perfumes, deodorants, and lotions that could contaminate the surgical site.
Nurses have touched millions of lives and looked after countless numbers of people in need. Let's do our best to show them the same care they've shown all of us.