Myth or Fact: Nurses Make the Worst Patients

Diane M. Goodman, BSN, MSN-C, APRN


August 18, 2021

When I have been hospitalized, I vacillated between wanting to keep silent about my status as a nurse vs being open regarding my profession. My preference is to keep quiet until I am acquainted with nurses who will be providing care. The reasons for this are complex, but if you are a nurse, you understand.

The Background

As patients, we have had a tough reputation. We may be expected to be among the worst of the most demanding, difficult patients on a unit. We are anticipated to pepper our providers with rigorous questions, possibly timing them on rounds and medications, and keenly observing handwashing and/or sterile technique when caregivers enter the room. Novice nurses may be afraid of being "watched" if they are assigned as our nurses, and more experienced nurses may hesitate to engage because they are busy.

But do we measure up to the cliché?

The Reality

Unfortunately, we often do. As one blogger described in Your Nurse Friday, nurses know what to do for themselves but often neglect to follow through, such as calling to have a breast lump examined when it is first discovered. Nurses may know the statistics on breast cancer and may even counsel patients on specific actions, but they still neglect to treat themselves with the respect they would advocate to community members. This is tough to explain.

We may believe that we can throw a bit of antibiotic ointment on a wound, cover it, and get on with our day. Worse, we may ask for a "curbside consult" with a physician or advanced practice nurse we see every day on the job, believing that we can save time (and the necessity of taking time off work) if we get an opinion while working. Nurses often have a difficult time making a priority of their own self-care.

The Data has offered several reasons why nurses can be the worst patients we may encounter. The first reason is that we can, quite simply, be obnoxious. While other patients might not consider touching the IV line, we often hit the silence button if it is beeping because we know how and it is driving us crazy. The second reason is our knowledge of the risks associated with hospitalization and procedures, which leads us to question everything. Reason #3 is loss of control. We want medications when we want them, despite what the physician intended. Does this sound familiar?

The Dichotomy

But nurses are not simply obnoxious, as Katie Exner, MSN, explained in an article by Rush University Medical Center. They do not want to bother another nurse for a process or treatment they believe they can do themselves, even though it may be in their best interest to follow instructions. Nurses have a difficult time "being a patient," as Katie did while experiencing gestational hypertension. She explained during her stay that nurses are taught self-reliance. As such, it was difficult for her to use the call light and summon other nurses, who were sure to be busy, or so she assumed, as further explained by the same source.

We anticipate the needs of colleagues, which may not fit the portrayal of "worst" patient. And even when we make mistakes, we attempt to achieve a better outcome for someone else.

Examine the case of nursing instructor Christy Henry from Springfield, Missouri. After she and her husband became severely ill from COVID, they were both hospitalized. Christy went on national news to implore unvaccinated Americans to get a vaccine as soon as possible. Christy was wearing an oxygen cannula, but she wanted to provide a message to anyone who might feel, as she had erroneously believed before her hospital admission, that their family is safe from contracting coronavirus. She said if the virus could infect her family in rural Missouri, it could infect anyone. She pleaded with the TV audience not to repeat her mistake, as seen on CNN.

"Worst patient" scenario? Hardly. This nursing instructor seemed more concerned with assisting others.

So, what do you believe?

Is nurse-as-worst-possible-patient a cliché, or are we outgrowing our reputation?

Weigh in and share your thoughts. Have you experienced the other side?

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About Diane M. Goodman
Diane M. Goodman, BSN, MSN-C, APRN, is a semi-retired nurse practitioner who works from home contributing to COVID-19 task force teams and dismantling vaccine disinformation, as well as publishing in various nursing venues. During decades at the bedside, Diane worked in both private practice and critical care, carrying up to five nursing certifications simultaneously. Yet she is not all about nursing. She is equally passionate about her dogs and watching movies, enjoying both during time away from professional activities. Her tiny chihuahuas are contest winners, proving that both Momma and the dogs are busy, productive girls!


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