Nurse Practitioners: An American Invention

Josephine Ensign (Bowdler then) at Cross-Over Clinic. From The Bon Secours Courier/St. Mary's Hospital June 1987.
Josephine Ensign (Bowdler then) at Cross-Over Clinic. From The Bon Secours Courier/St. Mary’s Hospital June 1987.

In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the role of nurse practitioners, I want to share an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Catching Homelessness (She Writes Press, August 9, 2016 publication date). Young people contemplating careers in nursing often ask me if I am happy I ‘became’ a nurse practitioner back in the early 1980s. My answer is always a qualified and honest, “yes, but it has not always been an easy role to work within–mainly due to the rigid medical hierarchy.” Yet of all the health care roles in existence today, if I had the chance to do it all again, I would–without any hesitation–become a nurse practitioner. We are a tough breed, willing to work on the medical margins, and we are here to stay.

Here is the excerpt from my book, in a chapter titled “Confederate Chess”:

“Nurse practitioners are an American invention, and specifically they are an invention of the American West. The nurse practitioner role was started by a Colorado nurse in the mid-1960s during President Johnson’s War on Poverty, when Medicaid and Medicare were established to extend health care to the poor and elderly. Even before this expansion of health care, there was a shortage of primary care physicians. At the same time there were many seasoned, capable nurses who were already providing basic health care to poor and underserved populations. A nurse-physician team developed the nurse practitioner role, adding additional course work and clinical training for nurses. With this, states began allowing nurse practitioners to diagnose and treat patients, including prescribing medications for common health problems.

Not surprisingly, the emergence of the nurse practitioner role met with the most resistance in states with higher physician to population ratios, and in states with more powerful and politically conservative physician lobbying groups. The nurse practitioner role was protested both within the medical and the nursing establishments. Physicians didn’t want nurses taking jobs from them, and nurses didn’t want other nurses having a more direct treatment role—more power and prestige—than they did. But the role caught on and spread throughout the country. Nurse practitioners didn’t get firmly established in Virginia until the mid-1980s when I completed my training.

Why nursing? I often asked myself, and people continued to ask me even after I became a nurse practitioner. It was as if any sane, intelligent, modern woman could not want to be a nurse. I had stumbled into nursing while a master’s student at Harvard University, studying medical ethics and taking courses in the School of Public Health. I was gravitating toward a public health degree, but was advised by one of my professors to go to either medical or nursing school first in order to get direct health care experience. I didn’t like the approach of mainline medicine, but also had a negative stereotype of nursing. The only nurses I knew worked in my rural family doctor’s office. They were stout, dull-witted, and wore silly starched white caps, overly-tight white polyester uniforms, and white support stockings that swished as their fleshy thighs rubbed together. But in graduate school at Harvard I sprained my ankle, and went to the student health clinic. I was seen by a kind and competent provider who spent time explaining what I should do to help my ankle recover. I was impressed and thought she was the best doctor I’d ever seen. Then she told me she was a nurse practitioner and explained what that was. My negative stereotype of nurses was challenged.”

2 thoughts on “Nurse Practitioners: An American Invention

  1. I’m a new Josephine Ensign fan. I guess I work so hard as a nurse practitioner it doesn’t leave a lot of time to read about us. Thanks for this and I resolve to find the time to follow more closely….

    Like

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