Shifting Perceptions of Nursing in the 21st Century

Before the 1860s, nurses in the U.S. were largely untrained workers with low socio-economic status, regarded with very little respect from the public at large or from physicians. The Civil War shook that up: As middle-class women became volunteer nurses out of a sense of patriotism and civic duty, public opinion of nursing became more favorable. As it became a more respectable profession, nursing schools sprang up, adapting the training model pioneered by Florence Nightingale. By the 1920’s, nurses were skilled workers with standards for professional conduct, and student nurses were ubiquitous in urban hospitals.

In the 1940s, a war once again advanced the profession. In fact, World War II is often said to have marked the start of the modern nursing era. American troops received a tremendous amount of public support and, as a result, nursing became an attractive option for women who wanted to help in the war effort. Nearly 60,000 women joined the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps and public opinion of nurses was highly favorable throughout the war years. Many of these women went in untrained, but received specialty training and gained hands-on skills on the frontlines overseas. They returned to the U.S. with a skill set that quickly became more and more valuable after the war, as antibiotics and new medical technologies went mainstream. These veteran nurses are often credited with taking charge of the newly transformed nursing profession, largely through the American Nurses Association (ANA). Government support for nursing education also rose after the war.

Still, nursing was seen merely as “women’s work” during the 1950s and ‘60s. Like teachers during the mid-century era, nurses were largely female and often chose their job path with low ambitions, believing they would get married and stop working in favor of keeping house and raising children. Even as it became more common for married women to remain in the workforce, nursing was a profession with a “glass ceiling” problem, due to the paternalistic medical hierarchy, and nurses often reported feeling powerless and limited in their options.

Flash forward a few decades—and oh my, how things have changed! Nursing education is now driven by science and technology, nurses are collaborators with physicians and other clinicians, and the nursing profession is wide open to career-minded people of any background or gender. Nurses have become more essential than ever to the modern care delivery system and a rapidly evolving healthcare industry. What’s more, nurses are specializing in myriad areas outside of patient care, including forensics, medico-legal matters, research, information technology, and health policy. Technology in particular—mobile apps, EMRs, cloud computing, telemedicine—is expanding the range of career paths available to ambitious nurses today.

The nursing profession is not just becoming broader, however. It’s becoming deeper and more complex as well. Some of this is due to an increased emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary care. But as medical knowledge grows, so does the need for nurses who specialize in a particular area, whether diabetes management, neonatal intensive care, geriatrics, or trauma care. Leadership and business skills are also valuable to nurses today, as they become entrepreneurs or C-level executives. Nursing is now a profession for critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and intellectually curious explorers.

With career options exploding wide open, nursing education has had to keep pace; more nurses than ever before are earning a BSN, MSN, DNP, or specialty certification. Do you have a career dream? A BSN can give you a broader perspective of healthcare systems in a way that will allow you to “connect the dots” between clinical practice and the overall business of healthcare. An MSN can prepare you for a highly specialized area of nursing like nursing education, informatics, organizational leadership, or case management. And a DNP can put you at the top of your field.

There are so many different options to explore that American Sentinel University has developed a guide for nurses looking to grow their careers or specialize. Our free “You-Choose” e-book outlines ten things to consider when choosing a nursing specialty and describes 28 nursing specialties that fall outside the realm of traditional bedside care and that relate to one of our degree programs. We hope you’ll download it as a first step toward a more satisfying nursing career!