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Beyond the Bedside: The Changing Role of Today's Nurses

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The nursing role is rapidly evolving as nurses are tasked with an even wider range of health care responsibilities. Caring for the sick has certainly gotten more complicated. Hospitals are understaffed. Budgets are tight.

The graying of our society -- plus growing rates of diabetes, obesity, and other conditions -- means the health care system is dealing with an increasing number of complex illnesses. And with political elections looming, it's unclear what the regulatory landscape might look like in the future.

In hospitals, clinics, and care centers around the US, nurses are rising to meet these challenges. And advanced nursing education is empowering nurses to lead the way.

Today's nurses aren't just caring for the sick; they're changing our very notion of modern medicine and health care delivery. Nurses are giving TED talks, publishing scientific research, developing mobile medical applications, and actively addressing health care policy. They're collaborating with their colleagues, from social workers and oncologists to hospital administrators and public safety personnel. The field is growing, and so are opportunities for nurse practitioners, DNP and PhD nurses, nurse educators, nurse-anesthetists, and nurse researchers.

New health care technology is also creating opportunities for nurses. More and more aspects of the profession are electronic: Test results, X-rays, blood work, and ordering medication. An array of new technologies -- mobile devices, electronic medical records, cloud computing, and teleconferencing -- invite nurses to be digitally ambitious.

It's not just that nursing is becoming a broader field; it's becoming deeper, too. The opportunity to pursue medical specializations -- diabetes, obesity, pharmacology, and more -- is blooming, but the real opportunity is in mastering complex, multifaceted issues that impact our health care system and our nation. It's more than knowing how to perform tasks and procedures; It's about being a more effective member of the health care team and navigating clinical systems.

Soon, nurses won't just consider the symptoms of patients in front of them; they'll look at the health of their communities and beyond. Health information databases -- like the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, which uses cloud computing to understand how HIV spreads -- will help nurses see how illnesses fit into national disease trends.

Even basic medical instruments are getting smarter: For example, new bandages for heart patients have built-in sensors to measure vital signs. It will be the nurse's role to track and synthesize multiple sources of comprehensive patient information. In the emerging field of nursing informatics, nurses will connect with technology developers to make these systems more user-friendly.

Nurses will also confront the growing costs of health care in America. For example, a major challenge is how to curb the large expenditures for chronic disease patients in hospitals. One proven way is to treat patients before they need a hospital visit. New at-home monitoring programs, where nurses see patients on live webcasts, will soon play a larger role in patient care. Because these emerging tools are at the forefront of more cost-efficient care delivery, nurses who can adapt and implement technology will become sought-after leaders.

Patient behaviors are also evolving in a digitalized world. Patients are using online resources to research and treat their symptoms. Health and wellness are consistently among the most searched-for topics on Google. Nurses will need to double as health technology librarians, directing patients to trustworthy websites and useful applications.

New technology won't preclude traditional care, but it will open up more creative options to teach patients about their health. Nurses will no longer be limited to one-size-fits-all safety pamphlets. Patient education can become more personalized, with hundreds of new medical apps, from glucose monitors to basal body temperature trackers.

Nurses will still need to be culturally wise too. Hospitals are increasingly diverse, cultural melting-pots where nurses work on the front lines of race, religion, and gender. Doctor time is limited, but nurses deliver hour-to-hour care and interact with the families of patients. It requires the ability to listen and understand people from all walks of life.

Nursing has become more complex in ways that couldn't have been imagined a generation ago. Now there's an imperative to be not just a great caregiver but a great innovator too. The demands of health care are calling for a new generation of thinkers who want to be agents of care innovation. It's a profession for the intellectually curious, lifelong learner.

However, as nursing continues to evolve with new hospital structures, fancier gadgets, and political challenges, the heart of the profession stays the same. Whatever the tools and technologies, the job of the nurse will remain caregiver and advocate for the most sick and vulnerable members of our communities.

Great nurses take what they've learned in their formal education -- the key concepts, the research, the policy and societal considerations -- and apply it to make surprising, difficult, life-or-death decisions every day. And that's why nursing education has such a crucial role to play. Getting an advanced nursing degree means preparing yourself for a changing world of possibility. With the right skills and knowledge, the next generation of nurses can make a bigger difference for patients, communities, and our national health care environment.