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The critical role of a nurse: Bridging the gap between art & science

The College of St. Scholastica By  The College of St. Scholastica  |  @StScholastica  | 

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Nurses are a constant presence at the frontlines of healthcare, there for us at the bedside in times of need. Throughout a career, a nurse's impact reaches thousands of patients and their families. As many of us know, an effective, caring nurse is simply hard to forget.

With all of that in mind, it's no secret that nursing is a highly respected and honored profession. In fact, it has been ranked as the most trusted profession for fifteen straight years. But nursing isn't just about comforting sick patients or grieving families. While that's an element that's often recognized, there's another side to the profession many don't think about as regularly: the science.

Healthcare, after all, is an industry steeped in scientific findings. Nurses study for years to understand the intricacies of the human body. And while it takes a sharp mind to master the science of nursing, there is also an art to caring for patients. The role of a nurse bridges both. 

Read on to learn more about the art and science of nursing with practicing nurses weighing in on how they utilize both in their day-to-day work.

Understanding the two sides to nursing

Nurses use their heads and their hearts. Each day, they utilize critical thinking to make sound judgements and select the best care solutions for their patients. They employ their compassionate side to understand their patients and will often use their knowledge of the sciences in the application of treatments.

Nursing is both an art and a science — and in this field, one can't exist without the other.

"You can be masterful in all the medical science and technology, but if you don't understand how to engage your own emotional intelligence, you're not going to provide the same level of care," says Stephanie Sargent, RN and VP of product development and quality at SE Healthcare Quality Consulting. Conversely, she explains that "you can be a caring, empathetic nurse, but if you don't know how to work the ventilator, you're going to be in trouble."  

The science of nursing: theory, evidence, technology

"Nursing is a legitimate scientific discipline rooted in theory, ongoing research and evidence. We take evidence and implement it to improve quality and to improve nursing practice," explains St. Scholastica nursing instructor and current DNP student Amos Restad, BSN, RN, CCRN.

Nurses study complicated scientific concepts, theories and hands-on methodology to understand the complexities of the human body. "A scientist is one who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences. Thus, nurses are scientists," says Jonathan Steele, RN and executive director of Water Cures. "The physical sciences we work with are both nursing sciences and the medical sciences. Nurses facilitate the care doctors provide. They also work within the framework of the nursing assessment, diagnosis and treatment."

Before entering the workforce, nursing students must pass science courses, including anatomy, chemistry, microbiology and physiology, as well as behavioral sciences, such as psychology and/or sociology. Understanding the sciences is central to the nursing field.

Beyond the hard sciences, nurses must also be proficient in the technology used throughout healthcare facilities. "Nursing is a completely different profession from a hundred years ago," Sargent explains. "It's incredibly reliant on technology, and nurses are expected to understand all of it — everything from infusion pumps to traction devices, ventilators to fall alarms and now, electronic health records."

While nursing is steeped in evidence based-practice, scientific concepts and technical know-how, it's important to note that all of these elements can come together only under the careful application of a knowledgeable nurse. Even with the numerous facts and protocols in nursing, you can't simply train a successful nurse, Restad poses. "You can't have them know however many algorithms or theories and expect them to be nurses. If that was the case, robots would be nurses."

It's the human element that brings science into practice — and that's what makes the art of nursing come alive.  

The art of nursing: application, interpretation, creativity

Nurses must master a plethora of information about the human body. It's the manner in which they apply this expertise that can be considered the "art of nursing." Without the art of the application, the knowledge and expertise of a nurse is all but useless.

The art of nursing can appear in many forms. It can be a nurse's ability to develop a relationship with a patient or their family and to build a mutual trust. It can be the ability to empathetically understand what a patient is going through and to explain conditions and treatments in a way they will comprehend. Or it can just as easily be a way of picking up on what is unsaid.

"Something they don't teach you in nursing school is emotional intelligence. It's the ability to read a room — your own feelings and the feelings of others — and use that to determine how to interact," Sargent says. "People with high emotional intelligence are really in tune with others and practice nursing at a higher level."

Sometimes the art of nursing is more of an intuition developed through years of experience on the frontlines of healthcare. Steele describes a situation when, as a hospice nurse, he recognized a patient was going into the active dying phase. Despite not seeing any of the textbook signs of active death, Steele knew it was time to summon the family for one last visit.

"The reason for being able to tell she was actively dying was not something I could teach anyone," he explains. "But when you see it enough, a nurse develops a skill where they have an unconscious competence.

Other times, the art of nursing is seen through a creativity in the application of nursing procedures. Steele recalls an instance when his resourcefulness helped someone when medical facilities weren't near. "A friend who was an hour away from the hospital complained of chest pains," he recalls. Steele gave the friend a pinch of salt and a bottle of water, which served as a makeshift saline IV. The chest pains disappeared in less than a minute. "When disaster strikes and hospitals are not near, [nurses can] use creative means to preserve lives."

The art of nursing can also be a balancing act. For instance, a nurse in the intensive care unit may be assigned two patients, with one being much sicker than the other. "You need to be able to convey to your patient that their needs are valid and that they are valued, while still putting lots of time and energy into the other, sicker patient and their family," Restad explains. 

Taking all of the scientific concepts and hard nursing skills one learns in school and applying those to real-life scenarios is what the nursing profession is really about. The art of application makes nursing holistic, taking the entire person and unique medical scenario into consideration. "Any person could be trained to put an IV in. Any person can learn these nursing skills. But to put it all together and add the element of care — that's nursing," Restad says.  

One profession, two sides

Nursing is as much of an art as it is a science. And a successful nurse cannot have one without the other, embodying both in tandem. When applied together, the art and science of nursing is a force to be reckoned with in healthcare. It's what makes nurses so effective, and it's what makes all the difference to the patients in their care.

Through it all, the best nurses never stop learning and growing. But if you find yourself hitting a wall in your career, it may be time to explore advancement options. You can learn more about expanding your career opportunities, improving patient outcomes and increasing your impact as a nurse by visiting our article, "RN to BS online: Is it time to move forward in your nursing career?"

The College of St. Scholastica


The College of St. Scholastica is an independent private Catholic Benedictine college with locations across Minnesota, in addition to many high-quality programs available online and through convenient evening and weekend formats. Since 1912, St. Scholastica has been preparing students for a life of purpose and economic gain by engaging students in the love of learning and active citizenship in the world. Our mission is to provide intellectual and moral preparation for responsible living and meaningful work. 

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