AACN News—May 2003—Opinions

AACN News Logo

Back to AACN News Home

Vol. 20, No. 5, MAY 2003

Bold Voices
Everyday Acts Can Effect Change

By Connie Barden, RN, MSN, CCNS, CCRN
President, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

Recently nurses have told me that they sometimes feel as if they're not doing enough in using their voice. Some seem almost paralyzed, because they think that a "bold voice" has to be a "big voice" to make a difference. "I feel bad that I haven't written letters to the editor or talked with my legislator," one nurse told me. Although these avenues can be used to influence change, we must not overlook the greater power of the messages we speak every day, wherever we practice critical care nursing.

As I see it, the most effective, powerful and pervasive voice is the one used relentlessly, day in and day out by nurses committed to doing the right thing. They speak up for patients, families and colleagues. They seek to heal our ailing healthcare system. Their voices aren't usually flamboyant or boisterous. In fact, using a bold voice isn't an event at all. It is instead a day-to-day way to influence enduring change.

A bold voice is a committed voice. A committed voice speaks up now and always about nursing and healthcare issues. A committed voice doesn't let us accept things as "just the way they are." A committed voice calls us to find solutions to the challenges faced by everyone in healthcare-and that includes patients and their families. These solutions will not be found in grand and glorious events showcased by TV cameras and headlines. They will be found in everyday interactions-at the bedside, in the nurses' station, during staff and faculty meetings, and among peers-where the standard of excellence we demand for our patients and ourselves is reflected.

You can make a difference with your bold voice. Consider some of these powerful examples of how our fellow AACN members used their everyday voice during the past year.
� During routine rounds, a part-time staff nurse took the initiative to talk with her chief nursing officer about the decreasing morale and dissatisfaction among the medical ICU staff. The CNO listened. Focus groups were started. Changes were made. Nurse retention has increased.

� During a staff meeting, a critical care nurse boldly challenged colleagues to increase their level of knowledge and prepare to take the CCRN certification exam. Six nurses accepted the challenge and registered for the exam. Three more are lined up.

� In the family lounge, a nurse six months out of school talked with the husband of a comatose patient about end-of-life care decisions that were in conflict with the rest of the family's views. She then worked with her preceptor to make certain the husband's wishes were carried out.

� Concerned about stress caused by the continuous need for experienced nurses to be preceptors, a nurse with 21 years of experience asked her manager for a break in precepting from time to time. The unit now has a system that not only allows preceptors to rotate, but also rewards those who choose to precept beyond what is required.

� At a staff meeting, nurses who recognized the strain of frequent floating suggested a closed staffing trial between their unit and another ICU. Morale is at an all-time high since the system started four months ago.

� Because of her knowledge about the unusual interaction between two medications, a clinical nurse specialist was able to prevent an overdose by having a dialogue with the physician who had just written an erroneous order.

� A staff nurse in graduate school asked why nurses in her unit were still using saline when suctioning patients, even though published studies show this is harmful. The practice was studied and procedures were changed.

There are challenges and rewards when you think of a bold and powerful voice as representing your commitment to a new way of being. The challenge is that speaking with a bold and powerful voice isn't a one-time event. When you are genuinely committed to having your voice matter, it never ends. There will always be improvements that need to be made and issues that need to be resolved. Many of those will demand that you speak up day after day.

The good news is that it gets easier and more effective, and it works. Your voice makes a difference. In fact, results will follow only when you speak up. If you are committed to creating change in this work that we love so dearly, a powerful, respectful, focused and clear voice is one of the few tools that can accomplish the change you desire.

Many years ago, anthropologist Margaret Meade spoke boldly and powerfully when she reminded us to never "doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world." "Indeed, " Meade said, "it is the only thing that ever has."

You-as a critical care nurse committed to using your voice with a focus of creating change and solutions-are the one who will change the world of healthcare. This commitment is an everyday act of courage, not a high profile media flash. By using your everyday voice relentlessly to speak up about important issues, you become one of the real heroes of healthcare. You become the nurse who finds solutions and makes change happen. You create the future that finally works for our patients and the entire healthcare team.


Physicians Have Role in Improving Conditions
In their article, "Why This Nursing Shortage Is Different," Berliner and Ginzberg1 provide a nice review of some previously reported facts, as well as some refreshing perspectives on international nurse recruitment. I found their discussion on working conditions and job dissatisfaction accurate, but unfortunately limited. Limited in that the article failed to clarify that physicians can play a role in improving nurses' working conditions and job satisfaction, and making such improvements are not only limited to just hospital management.

Another important consideration, especially in a publication targeted at physicians, is how physicians' behavior can have profound effects on nurses' working conditions and job satisfaction. Simply telling a nurse they did a "nice job" with a patient or "that was a great save, thanks" can help nurses feel good about both their work and their jobs. Most nurses respect physicians and physicians' opinions so a positive comment from them, when warranted, about good work and valuable contributions can have an enormous positive impact on nurses' job satisfaction.

A discussion on the impact of disruptive physician behavior on nurses' working conditions and job dissatisfaction would have been useful, too. Certainly, physicians are not the only staff whose behavior can be disruptive, but few hospitals have policies on how to handle such behavior of medical staff who are not hospital employees. Dealing with such cases can be very difficult.2 Yet, it only takes one malcontent physician to come into a work setting and disrupt the tone and morale of those working there. Comments intended to intimidate, undermine confidence, imply incompetence or other verbal abuses beyond the bounds of fair professional comment can do more than ruin a nurse's entire shift; they also undermine essential teamwork and collaboration.3

Berliner and Ginzberg's excellent article could have also recommended including the importance of the physicians' role in team building, communications, and collaboration in physician education.4 Also, recommending that medical centers establish an approach to handle unacceptable conduct of physicians who are subject to a different governance structure would be useful to support staff who want to deal with such instances in professional channels.
Robert Welton, RN, MSN
Professional Development Coordinator
Department of Patient Care Services
University of Maryland Medical Center
Baltimore, Md.

1. Berliner HS, Ginzberg E. Why this hospital nursing shortage is different. JAMA. Dec, 2002;288:2742-2744.
2. Gawande A. When good doctors go bad. The New Yorker, Aug, 2000;7:60-69.
3. Barnsteiner JH, Madigan C, Spray TL. Instituting a disruptive conduct policy for medial staff. AACN Clinical Issues: Advanced Practice in Acute and Critical Care. August 2001;12:378-382.
4. Haupt MT, Grenik A, Rogers P. Physician education in critical care medicine. New Horizons. 1998;6.

Your Feedback