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The invisible STEM-ness of Nursing

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Published on 11 February 2021

Dr Yitka Graham
Dr Yitka Graham

The World Health Organisation declared 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. Supported by the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), International Council of Nurses (ICN), Nursing Now and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2020 would have been a year of celebrating the work of nurses and midwives, illuminating the challenging conditions they often face in their day to day practice, and to advocate for increased investment in the nursing and midwifery workforce.

Unfortunately, the pandemic overshadowed much of this initiative. Currently, 89% of all nurses working in the UK are female, and on the 2021 International Day of Women and Girls in Science, there is a perfect opportunity to examine the contribution and positioning of nursing and its contribution to the sciences. Acknowledging the high percentage of females in nursing, our values as a University are to embrace equality, diversion and inclusivity and one of the core principles of the School of Nursing is to make a positive contribution to addressing the gender imbalance in the profession, and to encourage more males to become nurses.

To commemorate the 2021 International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I drew inspiration from a book I have read many times, ‘The Invisible Work of Nurses’ by Davina Allen. This thought-provoking book examines the often under-acknowledged, multi-faceted role of nursing that extends far beyond the societal identity of a care-giving occupation, challenging us to re-evaluate our perceptions of the nursing and give much-deserved visibility to a profession whose work and contribution is often unseen.

This book is a source of inspiration for the work of the Helen McArdle Nursing and Care Research Institute, and the contribution we make to the School of Nursing. As early as 1917, Sarah Parsons, President of the National League of Nursing Education in the USA, reflected on perceptions of nursing:

‘If there ever was a profession called into existence by the real needs of humanity, it is nursing…No one will ever dispute [this], yet it is true that if ever a profession had to contend with misunderstanding, misrepresentation, antagonism and exploitation, it is nursing.’

Currently, nursing is not recognised as a STEM profession, despite the fact that entry requirements for nursing programs require STEM subjects.

Nursing practice involves observing patients’ physical and behavioural activity at an intellectual rather than functional level, to assess the potential existence and progression of disease. The presence of disease, ensuing interventions and patient care demand the application of the core STEM subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in everyday nursing practice.

Science is at the root of nursing, drawing on chemistry, physics, microbiology, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and encompasses behavioural science such as psychology and sociology. The science of nursing thus embodies Engels’ biopsychosocial model of care, which arguably extends nurses’ roles and significant contribution to patient care far beyond a traditional biomedical approach.

Advances in digital innovation have greatly enhanced health provision. The increasing use of technology in routine patient care, e.g. tele-monitoring and other remote technologies, of which uptake and adoption which have increased exponentially as a result of the pandemic, requires nurses to possess a high level of digital and technological literacy.

Mathematics is again a central facet of nursing e.g. the safe administration of medication, with calculations and formulation used in core practice such as wound care. Thus, without the knowledge and application of STEM subjects, nurses would be unable to provide evidence-based practice, scientific analysis and demonstrate innovative approaches to care on par with other healthcare professionals.

On this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we have a unique opportunity to recognise the contribution that nursing makes to the sciences and acknowledge on how we may how we may collectively work to increase the visibility of Nursing into the STEM agenda.

More about Dr Yitka Graham

• Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professions (NMAHP) Strategic Research Lead for Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group and South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group to concurrently build NMAHP research in community and health and social care settings.

• Vice-Chair of both CCGs' Research and Evidence Committee.

• The Lead for the University of Sunderland Health and Care Workforce Interdisciplinary Research Network.

• Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Anahuac in Mexico, and an Honorary Lifetime member of the Mexican College of Surgery for Obesity and Metabolic Diseases.

• Part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity Stigma.

• Holds a research post at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, in one of the UK's leading bariatric surgical units.

• Speciality Group Lead in Health Services Research for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) North East and North Cumbria Clinical Research Network, supporting the delivery of studies in this discipline.

• Veteran's Champion for the University as part of our institutional commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant.