How has the role of the medical nurse evolved?

How has the role of the medical nurse evolved?
International Nurses Day. Image source: Unsplash

When we think of the medical community, we may first think of doctors, surgeons and other specialist healthcare providers like physiotherapists, anaesthetists or paediatricians. But one of the most vital roles in society was and still remains that of the medical nurse. Ahead of International Nurses Day on 12th May, here’s a look at the role of the nurse, and how it has evolved over the centuries.

Where it all began

Records of nursing as a profession can be traced back to the Roman Empire in around 300 AD, as hospitals began to be established in Roman towns. Later, nursing became more widespread in medieval Europe as the Catholic Church prioritised healthcare in their communities. Over the centuries that followed, nursing became popular in European regions where the church held influence.

However, it was Florence Nightingale who revolutionised nursing in the 19th Century as she advocated for improved hygiene to reduce infection rates among wounded soldiers in the Crimean War. Her legacy continued as the profession began to emphasise the importance of education and specialisation when it came to quality nursing care.

While nursing education became formalised with the establishment of the first nursing school in 1860 in London, the demand for nurses (even without proper training) increased dramatically during the two World Wars. In the years that followed, nursing specialisations like paediatrics and oncology emerged, which required further education and training.

Nursing in South Africa

The evolution of nursing in South Africa has been shaped by our historical, political, and social environment. While during the colonial era nursing duties were mostly performed by missionaries and “lay” caregivers, formal nursing began to emerge in in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly provided by religious institutions, as hospitals began to be established around the country.

It was only in the 1930s that nursing training began to be offered at South African universities; the implication before then was that it was considered to be an extension of women’s domestic labour. Today, there are various training paths to becoming a nurse, including a Bachelor of Nursing Science (BNSc) degree or various diploma programmes.

During the Apartheid era, nursing education and practice were heavily segregated, with separate training institutions and limited opportunities for black nurses. Despite these challenges, they played a crucial role in providing healthcare to under-resourced communities. When apartheid ended in 1994, longstanding inequalities in the profession were addressed: nursing schools were integrated, and healthcare policies were implemented to promote equality in the nursing workforce.

The role of medical nurses through the years

In today’s modern medicine, there’s are many specialised types of nurses, from paediatric and oncology nurses to critical care nurses and nurse midwives. No matter which area of medicine they work in, a modern nurse’s duties extend far beyond standard tasks such as giving medication, monitoring vital signs or helping patients with daily tasks. These days, they make also take on responsibilities such as: 

·         Patient advocacy: They may be involved in advocating for patients’ rights so that they receive the right care, information and support while in hospital. In this way, they act as liaisons between patients, families and doctors or other healthcare professionals.

·         Public health advocacy: They can be involved in advocating for public health programmes, whether it’s vaccination campaigns, disease screenings or general health education within a community clinic setting.

·         Health education: They can be involved in educating patients and communities about basic healthcare or disease prevention. In a corporate setting, private medical aids can be contracted to provide nursing services to employees.

·         Care coordination: Whether in a clinic or larger hospital, nurses can play an important role in coordinating care from different teams. In other cases, it may be clear that the patient is best cared for in a home environment. Some medical aids, such as Fedhealth, offer a Hospital At Home benefit which involves nurses or other medical staff providing regular home visits to deliver the treatment required.

·         Clinical leadership: Nurses in a leadership role will oversee nursing staff, develop care plans, implement quality standards and ensure that other nurses adhere to the correct clinical standards and protocols.

·         Emotional support: They provide emotional support and comfort to patients and their families facing illness, injury, or end-of-life care.

From its earliest beginnings, nurses have played a vital role throughout history in caring for the sick and providing services that promote health and wellbeing. They deserve our appreciation and thanks for the role they play in maintaining the holistic care of a patient, and the value they provide to the community at large.