education and competency. Nursing initiatives and programs should be scaled up to help bridge the gap between insurance coverage and access to care.
The nursing profession has the potential capacity to implement wide-reaching changes in the health care system. With more than 3 million members, the profession has nearly doubled since 1980 and represents the largest segment of the U.S. health care workforce (HRSA, 2010; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). By virtue of their regular, close proximity to patients and their scientific understanding of care processes across the continuum of care, nurses have a considerable opportunity to act as full partners with other health professionals and to lead in the improvement and redesign of the health care system and its practice environment.
Nurses practice in many settings, including hospitals, schools, homes, retail health clinics, long-term care facilities, battlefields, and community and public health centers. They have varying levels of education and competencies—from licensed practical nurses, who greatly contribute to direct patient care in nursing homes, to nurse scientists, who research and evaluate more effective ways of caring for patients and promoting health. As described in Annex 1-1 at the end of this chapter, most nurses are registered nurses (RNs), who “complete a program of study at a community college, diploma school of nursing, or a four-year college or university and are required to pass a nationally standardized licensing exam in the state in which they begin practice” (AARP, 2010). Figure 1-1 shows that of the many settings where RNs practice, the majority practice in hospitals; Figure 1-2 shows the employment settings of nurses by highest nursing or nursing-related education. More than a quarter of a million nurses are APRNs (HRSA, 2010), who hold master’s or doctoral degrees and pass national certification exams. APRNs deliver primary and other types of health care services. For example, they teach and counsel patients to understand their health problems and what they can do to get better, they coordinate care and advocate for patients in the complex health care system, and they refer patients to physicians and other health care providers. APRNs include nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists, and certified nurse midwives (see Table 1-1). Annex 1-1 provides more detailed descriptions of the preparation and roles of nurses, pathways in nursing education, and numbers of nurses.
Nursing practice covers a broad continuum from health promotion, to disease prevention, to coordination of care, to cure—when possible—and to palliative care when cure is not possible. This continuum of practice is well matched to the current and future needs of the American population (see Chapter 2). Nurses have a direct effect on patient care. They provide the majority of patient assessments, evaluations, and care in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, schools, workplaces, and ambulatory settings. They are at the front lines in ensuring that care is delivered safely, effectively, and compassionately. Additionally, nurses attend to patients and their families in a holistic way that often goes beyond physical health needs to recognize and respond to social, mental, and spiritual needs. Given their education, experience, and unique perspectives and the centrality of their role in