Who Is a Nurse? A Closer Look at These Superheroes in Scrubs

illustrated nurse with question marks on scrubs


Who is a nurse? There are many ways to answer this question. What kind of people join the nursing workforce? What kind of demographics are represented in nursing? Who makes this career choice and what do they do?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary will tell you nurses are licensed healthcare professionals who practice independently or are supervised by a physician, surgeon or dentist and who is skilled in promoting and maintaining health.1

But what does that really mean?

If you’ve ever seen a nurse on the job, you know that definition barely scratches the surface. A nurse is much more than "just a nurse" or the misguided nursing stereotypes that may spring to mind for some. And research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that there are more nurses in healthcare than any other kind of professional—almost twice as many.2

It’s no wonder you are curious about who they are. We dug into the research to give you a better picture of what the nursing workforce is like.

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Who is a nurse? The demographics

Any study on the demographics of people who comprise the nursing industry is going to be incomplete. Nurses are constantly coming and going all over the country in huge numbers. When studies attempt to get an idea of who nurses are—it is often through large, random sampling and questionnaires. That being said, these methods can still provide a solid picture of the nursing workforce.

A large study by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing took a sample size of 148,684 Registered Nurses (RNs) and 151,928 Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurses (LPN/VNs) for their 2017 survey. The response rate was between 20 – 30 percent for RNs and LPNs.3

They found some interesting statistics:

Who is a Registered Nurse3

  • The average age of RNs is 51, consistent with findings from past years.
  • Male RNs are on the rise in nursing, representing about 9.1 percent of RNs in the study.
  • 2 percent of RN respondents were racial minorities.
  • 7 percent of RNs work in a hospital.

Who is a Licensed Practical Nurse3

  • The average age of LPN/VNs is 52.
  • 29 percent of LPN/VNs identified as racial minorities.
  • 2 percent of LPN/VNs held a vocational certificate to qualify for their first nursing license.
  • 7 percent of LPN/VNs work in a nursing home/extended environment.

These figures only represent a fraction of the nurses in the country. But even if a study managed to survey every single active nurse we have, those numbers still wouldn’t tell you who nurses really are. So much more than demographics, work settings or job title specifics—nurses are a huge swath of healthcare and their work goes far beyond the technical skills of the job.

Who is a nurse? The career

Nurses play so many different roles that it’s impossible to encompass it all in just one job title. The profession is central to the heart of healthcare. “Nurses are the heartbeat of healthcare,” says RN and author Shantay Carter.

“Our assessment skills and care for the patient can either have a positive or negative outcome,” Carter says. “We are the faces that patients come to know and rely on. Patients will never forget how the nurse treats them. Remember, nursing is the number one most trusted profession.”

Without nurses and everything they do, healthcare simply could not function.

Don’t believe us? Familiarize yourself with just a few of the many hats nurses wear during every shift.

Who is a nurse? The many roles and responsibilities

A nurse is responsible for far more than just taking vital signs and updating patient records. These professionals wear many different hats and are critical members of the healthcare team. Learn a bit more about a few of the important roles they play during each shift.

A nurse is an educator

For nurses, a crucial part of the job is educating patients and their families on their diagnosis. A nurse teaches patients how to manage their symptoms and explains treatment options.

“One aspect of nursing that’s most meaningful to me is being an educator,” Carter says. “Whether I am training new nurses, educating the patients or educating our community—all of these efforts can have a great impact on healthcare.”

Nurses teach concrete skills, such as how to apply a dressing to a wound, as well as medical knowledge, like the signs and symptoms of worsening diabetes. More and more nurses are also tasked with educating patients on how to navigate the healthcare system, especially how to access care.

A nurse is a counselor

Nurses tending to the bedside get the privilege of building relationships with patients that physicians and other healthcare workers rarely get to experience. To many patients and their families, a nurse is their lifeline to the entire workings of the healthcare facility. By answering questions and listening to concerns, a nurse acts as an ambassador for a patient.

“Sometimes it’s the simple task of holding my patient’s hand to reassure them that everything will be OK,” Carter says, emphasizing that these acts of kindness and empathy are the most rewarding parts of the job—and oftentimes the most overlooked.

Patients enter the hospital for physical care. But it’s not just the physical care they receive that matters —the emotional support they receive from a nurse can make a world of difference.

A nurse is a chemical catalyst

Nurses aren’t always just the intermediary between the doctor and the patient. They have vast medical knowledge, with extremely technical specialties that are critical to the healthcare system. A nurse anesthetist, for example, must select powerful drugs with immediate effects on organs, cells and electrons, according to Nick Angelis, CRNA, MSN and author.

“Rather than just using theory like a pharmacist or writing orders for others to carry out as a physician would, I’m intimately involved with every breath and heartbeat my patients make—or that I make for them,” he explains.

Nurses across specialties tend to work very closely with their patients, making every task more acute in its importance.

A nurse is an advocate

All of the time nurses spend with their patients allows them to get a good grasp on their conditions. It’s not uncommon for them to step in on their patient’s behalf when recommending care plans to physicians or surgeons. Experienced nurses often see how the inner workings of healthcare systems impact patients and might take on roles that allow them to influence change.

“Advocating for the patients, my fellow nurses and for my community to have access to certain resources, is what gives me pride,” Carter says. “I love my profession and would not change my experience.”

Advocacy is so essential to nursing that some nurses make a career of it as a nurse advocate! Check out this article, “Advocacy in Nursing: 5 Ways to Support Your Patients,” if this role interests you.

A nurse is a confidant

Nurses have a lot on their plates, but they also must carry the burden of upholding the privacy of their patients. Nurses must adhere to strict privacy laws, maintaining the confidentiality and dignity of each patient.

“Due to HIPAA rules I keep all patient healthcare information private and only share what needs to be shared,” says Michelle Katz, LPN, MSN and author. She admits this is one of the more difficult aspects of her job, especially as a mental health nurse. There are times when you have to break that trust if you believe a patient may harm themselves or someone else.

“This is always a difficult decision for me because if you are wrong, you lose that band of trust. But if you are right, you may have saved a life or two,” Katz says.

Who is a nurse? All of the above and more

As you can see, no nurse is just a nurse. These professionals come from all over, and fill a huge array of essential roles. “You have to be able to multitask,” Carter says. “As nurses we are pulled into so many different directions.”

“We play the role of educator, advocate and mediator between patients and their doctors or loved ones. At times we are maintenance, housekeeping, tech support, dietary, phlebotomy, engineering and secretary,” Carter says.

Really, nurses are the glue keeping the healthcare system together.

Can you see yourself in some of these roles? Do you wonder how you would do in this career? Check out “Would I Be a Good Nurse? 10 Questions to Consider.”

1Nurse. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nurse.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “Registered nurses have highest employment in healthcare occupations; anesthesiologists earn the most” [information accessed January 24, 2019] https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2015/registered-nurses-have-highest-employment-in-healthcare-occupations-anesthesiologists-earn-the-most.htm.
3National Council of State Boards of Nursing, 2017 National Nursing Workforce Study, [information accessed January 24, 2019] https://www.ncsbn.org/workforce.htm.

About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a senior content manager who writes student-focused articles for Rasmussen University. She holds an MFA in poetry and worked as an English Professor before diving into the world of online content. 

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