Though health care seems filled with uncertainties, I recently glimpsed a hopeful future in the region’s new nursing school graduates. They’ve learned to embrace diversity, technology and community outreach to prepare for their changing role in health care.
Nurses have been on my mind a lot these days because our younger daughter just graduated from the School of Nursing at California State University, Sacramento. Over the past months, I have toured the nursing school, listened to some of the professors and learned more about what it takes to be a nurse in 2014.
First, these new nurses likely will reflect more of the diversity found among their patients. The graduates in our daughter’s class represented a rainbow of races – black, white, Latino and Asian – and even more ethnicities. In addition to English, the class included students who speak fluent Spanish, Russian, Punjabi, Cantonese, Vietnamese and other languages.
Such a diverse nursing force can be especially effective in rendering patient-centered care and showing cultural sensitivity to the country’s increasingly diverse population, experts say.
Hailing from a variety of educational and career backgrounds, the 78 local nursing school graduates also ranged from early 20s to late 50s, and included 22 men.
“As salaries go up and the variety of things you can do in nursing increases beyond personal care, more men are entering the field,” said Debra Brady, an associate professor at the nursing school.
She recalled cautioning the class early on that “diversity is a two-edged sword” and that they would need to find strength in their differences.
The class readily took up the challenge, which also gave them practice in teamwork, another trend in the evolving role of nurses.
During their two years of nursing classes, the students formed study groups and tutored one another. The younger ones shared their technology skills and the older students their life experience. The students even created class T-shirts.
The nursing school also used high-tech medical mannequins to simulate physical symptoms, so the students would get more practice assessing and treating medical conditions. The lifelike mannequins can be programmed to exhibit symptoms that include rapid heartbeat, pupil dilation, sweating and even seizures.
“The mannequins give students more practice in a lower-stakes environment where their developing critical-thinking skills don’t impact a real patient,” Brady said. “If they make a mistake, no one gets hurt.”
After each session with the mannequins, the students met with one of the nursing school professors to discuss what steps they took to assess the patient and any other steps they should have taken.
Brady tells students they must practice “thinking like a nurse,” using their heads and their hearts, but she added that soon nurses will be called on to think even more broadly when assessing patients.
“A valued nurse will be someone who is exceptional at case management, assessment and organizational skills,” Brady said. Future nurses will need “to think upstream” as to what other medical services might keep a patient from returning to acute care, for example.
The nursing graduates also spent many hours in community outreach, practicing in public health environments, such as schools, homeless shelters and food banks. The class helped to expand outreach efforts in Yolo County and won a statewide student nursing award for the most outstanding community health project, which included monthly foot-care clinics for homeless people in Sacramento.
The outreach efforts mirror one of the biggest trends in nursing: moving health care resources to where people need them, such as early-treatment clinics and home care.
Seeing the professionalism of Sacramento State’s nursing school staff and the outreach efforts of its graduates has given me a shot of confidence in future nurses. They have learned to keep patients their priority while navigating the changing tides of health care.
Yvonne McKinney works part-time for The Sacramento Bee editing the letters to the editor.