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The art and science of nursing

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I find the new requirement for nurses to spend up to a year gaining hands-on experience in hospitals before starting their training encouraging and a step in the right direction. However, in order to make a fundamental impact on nursing as a holistic body of care, we need a change in attitude.

The word ‘hospital’ comes from ‘hospis’ which means both ‘stranger’ and ‘host’. We could take from this that the patient is the ‘stranger’ seeking care, or that the illness is a‘stranger’ to the patient, who seeks care. If the ‘host’ is the hospital, staff working there, could view part of their role as welcoming strangers into their ‘home’.

Modern nursing seems to me to be a symptom of our confusion. We see the body as a mechanical thing, with parts that can be replaced. As a result we treat it as a machine, separately and in pieces with each organ assigned to its own specialist, and little communication about the person as a whole. Stuck in this compartmentalised approach, I find nursing has become as unsatisfactory experience for both nurses and patients.

I trained as a nurse over 30 years ago and, although I do not advocate going back to the dark ages, I do believe elements of our nursing practice were enlightened and we could learn from reflecting on this today.

The pride we had for our workplace gave an air of professionalism to everything we did. The cleanliness of the building was as important as the comfort of the patient and you could not separate the two. Domestic staff were seen as important as nurses and we all worked together, not in isolation. They joined us for coffee breaks and ward outings. Our attitude embraced every individual’s contribution to care.

Since then, incredible advances in medicine have caused us to split the body into different specialities, but the emotional and spiritual parts of us are struggling to make sense of our experiences. The experiences that patients and staff go through in hospital are perhaps more important than we think. People struggle in isolation and need to be comforted but our wards have nothing they can relate to; the walls are bare, the curtains around the beds are made of disposable fabric and there are no flowers. In our fear of infection we have stripped our wards of simple human essentials such as paintings over the beds, books and poetry to read at teatime.

Are we able to embrace an attitude where the spiritual need for homeliness in our profession can stand alongside our huge body of scientific knowledge?

The challenge for nursing now may be to make the art as important as the science: to see that our gifts of imagination and creativity can enhance our healing ability and to use our humanity to be true hosts to strangers.

Janet Goldsworthy is a freelance writer

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