Although they have paid a high price for recognition, nurses are among the high-profile heroes on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. The profession has an opportunity to leverage this moment to improve their status and standing in healthcare, says Lori Armstrong, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, chief executive officer and chief clinical officer for Inspire Nurse Leaders.

Hospital Employee Health asked the nursing leadership consultant to share her thoughts on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

HEH: You note that public recognition during the pandemic gives nursing leaders momentum to make real and necessary change.

Armstrong: Nursing has captured global attention, and rightly so (and probably long overdue). The critical role nurses play in the health and well-being of patients and their families has been talked and written about during pandemic. The nurses have really been the lifeline for the family because of isolation requirements. I began to share with my colleagues and team that we have to hold on to this global recognition and attention and do something with it. I like to call it “making COVID count.” Making it count in a way to re-imagine the future of nursing and how we impact the health and well-being of the nation and the world.

HEH: What do you think of the calls for new legislation or regulations to protect nurses and frontline workers during and after the pandemic?

Armstrong: As much as I am opposed to politicizing COVID-19, I think that all elected officials have a great responsibility for their next steps. I think what COVID-19 has brought to light are many cracks in the armor. The supply chain issue is not the result of one or two years. The supply chain issue and our inability to provide proper personal protective equipment for nurses and other healthcare workers is the result of decades of policymaking and decisions by private businesses. I urge every healthcare worker and organization to come together to solve this problem. There is not one solution — it is so complex. We have to come together in unity to address such a national problem that continues to put healthcare workers in harm’s way. We can’t allow that.

HEH: Some of these same concerns were raised during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. How is this different?

Armstrong: When I compare them, I think it is an order of magnitude. Ebola was very scary, but when it came to the United States, it was in isolated incidents. [COVID-19] has hit every part of the country. Yes, certain cities have been the epicenters, but the magnitude has made it a real and present danger. Ebola waxed and then waned, and other priorities took over in public health. The protection of our healthcare workers in delivering care and protecting themselves took a second, third, fourth, 10th seat.

HEH: What other things can come out of this pandemic for nursing?

Armstrong: I think it is essential that nursing is viewed as the critical link to good outcomes. We measure trust and respect of professions every year through a national Gallup Poll. Every year, nurses rank as the most trusted profession. But despite this, we are not always the decision-makers in healthcare at the organizational level or the state and national level. Nurses need to come together as a profession and seize this opportunity to make sure our voices are heard. We need to cement our role as the critical voice in the delivery of healthcare.

HEH: How has the pandemic affected employee and occupational health, and keeping healthcare workers healthy?

Armstrong: Their leadership should take stock of where they are in the organization. Are they on the right committees? Do they have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made? Quite often, I find that certain smaller departments are not in the conversation. They need to be. They need to seize this opportunity because they play such a significant role in keeping our employees safe and healthy. They need to make sure their voices are heard. I would recommend they partner immediately with their nurse leadership colleagues and their physician leaders. When you have that collaboration in occupational health with a physician leader and the chief nursing officer, that is one strong, unified voice.

To have a seat at the table, they have to have data. The data from within their own organization [showing] what their impact is, and what opportunities there may be to improve. We might be coming out the other side of COVID-19 now, but we don’t know what the winter is going to look like. I would encourage occupational health and safety leaders to make sure they learn from their current experience and are prepared for the winter.

Be Courageous

Armstrong offers the following tips for employee health professionals and healthcare workers:

  • Be courageous. “It’s time for nurses to stand up and speak out on behalf of themselves and their patients,” she says. “Nurses must always be professional and well prepared, but they must also learn to use their voices to lead from wherever they are.”
  • Humanize the facts. “Use irrefutable facts, combined with real stories about real people — a powerful combination,” Armstrong advises.
  • Invite yourself. “Don’t wait for an invitation,” Armstrong says. “Take the initiative to show up at important meetings and reach out to influential people.”
  • Invent, innovate, and inspire. “Don’t miss the opportunity to reinvent yourself, your team, and your community,” she says. “Sometimes, innovation is in plain sight.”