Talk About What You Do

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN

Too often, we RNs complain that the general public doesn’t understand what we do, that the press ignores us, and that other healthcare workers don’t respect us. Although there are many reasons for the above, at least part of the blame falls on us. We are notoriously silent about who we are, what we do, and our vast knowledge base. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about ourselves or don’t know how to explain what we do — even when we have the opportunity. And on the infrequent occasions that we do talk, our speech is often peppered with jargon that even fellow nurses don’t understand. To spread the word about who we are and what we do, we need to start talking — in simple terms — to anyone who’ll listen.

Introduce yourself. When meeting someone, including patients and family members, always say you are a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse rather than a nurse. Why? Because there are different types of nurses, and the public doesn’t necessarily know that. This can open the door for further discussion and questions about the profession. This is a great opportunity to tell others about what you do. Here’s a sample introduction: “My name is James, and I’m the registered nurse in charge of your care today.” Many people don’t know that there is a nurse in charge of their care while in a healthcare facility. If applicable, mention your certifications, too, such as, “I’m a Certified Medical Surgical Nurse.” The public doesn’t generally know that nurses can be certified in a specialty.

Network. Going to nursing events is great, but you should also attend chamber of commerce meetings, business networking groups, and other community events. This will give you and the profession more visibility and give more people access to you. Since you’re often asked to stand and introduce yourself at these events, be prepared with an introduction that provides people with a bit of information about what you do. Say something like, “I’m a registered nurse at County General Hospital. I’m a clinical bedside nurse on a medical unit.” When out in public, be prepared with a business card, even a personal one if you don’t have a work-related card so that you can exchange contact information with other professionals.

Showcase your knowledge and expertise. Write letters to the editor in response to healthcare articles. Consider writing an op-ed piece about a hot topic in healthcare or one in which you have expertise. Contact local media sources and offer to be a resource on particular issues. And if you’re contacted, be sure to get back to the person immediately. Reporters usually work on deadline and need an immediate response from a source, or they’ll move on to the next one. Offer to speak at local clubs and association meetings about healthcare issues like child safety in the home, preventing heart disease or osteoporosis, or how to choose a healthcare provider.

Explain what you do in simple language. If you make a statement that’s unclear or laced with industry jargon, not only will it not be understood, but some people won’t ask you to clarify. They may feel embarrassed or intimidated because they don’t know what you’re talking about. When asked to describe what she did, a nurse I saw interviewed on TV replied, “I work in a neonatal ICU. I perform assessments, calibrate high-tech equipment, and administer medication.” Unfortunately, this RN was using “nursespeak” and needed an interpreter. She might have said, “I work with premature babies and other infants with life-threatening conditions in an intensive care unit. I’m responsible for close observation of these babies on a minute-to-minute basis. I oversee all of their care and treatments, initiate life-saving measures as needed, and provide support and counseling to their parents.” That’s much clearer and provides a layman’s overview of what a neonatal ICU nurse does.

Avoid acronyms — even when speaking with other healthcare professionals. For example, every nurse does not know what PACU (postanesthesia care unit — formerly the recovery room) means. One nurse recently told me she worked in a “CSDU.” I didn’t have a clue that she was referring to a cardiac step-down unit. Most healthcare providers are unfamiliar with all the acronyms used in our industry.

Consider your audience. If you’re being interviewed on TV or radio or by a newspaper or nonindustry magazine, even if the interviewer is a healthcare professional, keep in mind who the audience is and speak accordingly. Break it down into plain English.

Use pro nursing language. When giving advice or discharge instructions, rather than saying, “Do you have a doctor you go to?” ask “Do you have a doctor or nurse practitioner that you see?” Asking if they have a “primary healthcare provider” won’t do the trick because that’s industry lingo not used by the general public. And because many nurses have doctoral degrees and therefore the title of “doctor,” it’s good to refer to medical doctors as physicians to minimize confusion. If you’re referring to a nurse with a doctoral degree, you should add their healthcare credential to the end of the person’s title for clarity. For example, say, ‘This is Dr. Mary Reynolds, a nurse practitioner.”

Look for opportunities to talk about what you do and convey the essence of nursing to the people. Learn to speak in plain, everyday language in a way that can be easily understood by the general public. The more you talk about what you do and find opportunities to showcase your knowledge, the more you’ll create a climate for others to better understand what we nurses do.

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