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How nursing is ushering us towards a better world

Mark Lazenby, Professor of Nursing, Affiliate Professor of Philosophy, School of Nursing's Associate Dean for Faculty and Student Affairs, University of Connecticut, US.

This is an edited extract from the full chapter ‘Nursing and the Good Society’ from Toward a Better World: The Social Significance of Nursing (Oxford, 2020).

It was the summer of 2007. I was in southern Africa to study death and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). I had traveled a day’s drive outside the city where I was working to a rural health post that served a village of fewer than a thousand people. At that health post, I encountered two nurses. They were young men, probably in their midtwenties. Except for their all-white nursing uniforms, they could have been two young men in Los Angeles, London, or New York. But instead, they were in that rural village staffing the two-room health post. They lived in a small house behind it. And they did everything. They conducted physical exams and took blood and other specimens and shipped them off to the faraway lab. They prescribed and dispensed medications. Much to my surprise, they were also midwives; they brought babies into the world and then provided their well-baby care. They were the one-stop shop for health care in that village. And it was unrelenting work: they were on duty twenty-four/seven. I marveled at their skill, knowledge, and fortitude. But I wondered how they could devote themselves to such demanding and nonstop care of the people of that village, especially when, at their age, one would expect them to be in the city having a good time after work. But these two young men did not have the time or luxury to go out after work. They had dedicated their lives to nursing in a way I had not previously understood.

I asked them how they could do all this. Almost in unison, they answered, “Because we owe it to our people.” They then went on to tell me how they had grown up during the time when there were no antiretroviral medications to treat HIV; these medications had become widely available only a few years earlier. They had watched their loved ones—including one of their own mothers—die of HIV-related diseases. They did what they were doing because they thought their work could further what the antiretroviral medications had done: contribute to a better society.

With more than twenty million registered nurses worldwide, nursing is the world’s largest profession. It fascinates me when I go to a nursing conference and find nurses from the earth’s four corners seeking the latest knowledge and skills so as to provide better patient care. Imagine nursing’s power if nurses came from around the globe to learn how to address societal issues: the politics of war and violence; the economics of greed; the divisions of color and race, sex and gender; and the health of the planet upon which all life depends. Imagine if nurses worldwide came together with economists to address the economic well-being of the poor, such that no one fell short of the minimum income necessary for living a life in which they are able to be and do that of which they are capable. Nursing has the power to do just that—to bring about the good society, to make the world a better place.

It was this power that motivated Florence Nightingale and motivated many of the historically important pioneers of the nursing profession who aimed for social reform, such as Florence Wald who left her post as dean of the world’s first university-based nursing school to bring the hospice movement to the United States. How society cares for the dying is a measure of its humanity. Florence Wald knew this, and she knew the power of nursing to improve the care of the dying and, thus, to improve society. These and countless other nurses have taught us that we must (in the language of ethics, we have an obligation to) address the societal ills of our time—to make the world a better place—through the power of nursing.

In my daily work as a university nursing professor, I encounter people who come into nursing as a second career. They come from all walks of life. Yet they come to nursing for the same reason that those two young men were content to be nurses in a rural village, the same reason Florence Wald cared for the dying, and Nightingale founded the modern profession: they want to make the world a better place.

Ushering in a better world for all people—the good society—begins with the basic belief that all people share one condition, one trait, from the moment we are born: we are human. It is the commonality of our humanity that, I believe, grounds the good society.