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Alison Gadsby: 'Intuition is the common element across nursing'

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Isn’t nursing a strange job? Ask your average person on the street what nurses do and you may be hard pushed to find any similarities in the roles they describe. It may well be the same if you asked a group of nurses with different specialisms to outline what the other jobs actually involved.

I would be hard pressed to describe the job of, for example, a theatre nurse. And I’m sure any nurse asked what mental health nurses do would include ‘dress scruffily’ and ‘read the paper’ in their definitions. But I think there would also be some common ground across the nursing spectrum and I think the crux of this is instinct.

I believe that I have a natural nursing instinct. I’m aware that the use of words such as this may be controversial in these days of evidence-based practice but I think an ability to use and trust one’s instinct can make a good nurse into a great one.

Instinct can’t be taught, although with practice you can become more aware of what it is telling you. Let me give an example for those of you who are sceptical. You are with a patient who is distressed, having just been given some bad news about their illness. You remember reading the chapter on ‘Dealing with the distressed patient who has just received some bad news’, but any amount of brain-wracking can’t conjure up the wise pointers it contained.

So you do what any nurse has to do in that situation – you listen to your instinct, and you know how to get alongside the person and help them. Some of the skills needed in this situation can be picked up and practised but a good nursing instinct can turn a difficult interaction into a brilliant one.

I’m not saying we should assume that everyone who trains to be a nurse has an inbuilt ability to do the job, so there’s no need to train us. Even a great instinct needs other knowledge and skills to enhance it. And I’m also not suggesting that we blindly follow our instinct, as in, ‘my instinct told me I needed to leave the ward unattended and get to the canteen before the hot food ran out’.

Just think about what made you want to nurse. Was it because you couldn’t think of anything better to do with better pay? Or did you know that nursing was the only job for you, the one that you already had an instinct for, because you were the one who people always told their problems to and could be relied upon? Chances are that if you ask around nurses you know, you’ll share more common ground than you think.

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