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The Nurse Card

Why We Dislike Labels

Published December 14, 2016 10:03 AM by Diane Goodman
We utilize descriptive terms nearly every day, whether during handoff or when reading through charts. "An elderly, well-nourished, white male, appearing his stated age, was admitted for a complaint of increasing shortness of breath."

Labels. Professionally, we may not think twice about their use, except for the harsh glare we give when we hear a peer or physician mention a patient by a diagnosis rather than a name. Unfortunately, after an election year that was filled with negativity and name-calling, we've grown wearier than ever using labels in our private lives.

But labels are hardly benign.

When we start grouping people into categories and dividing them by components, life becomes more complex. Within the last year, we've learned it isn't as simple as "men" and "women" when labeling bathroom access, and not all adults see themselves as fitting into binary codes related to gender. We have become a society where the initials LGBT have become more socially "aware," even though many of us may have grown up in small communities with teachers and students who never acknowledged the word "gay."

I consider myself to be reasonably tolerant. Most of my nursing peers would say they are equally so, and all would say we dislike labels. We dislike informing patients they fit into categories called "obese" or "morbidly obese" even though we may be required to educate them regarding the relationship of being overweight to risk for a multitude of disease states. Yet many of these same nurses can't resist labeling patients as "frequent flyers," "potentially drug-seeking," "difficult," "challenging," or "demanding" when they see behaviors that aren't easily met during a busy shift or when a patient doesn't perform as expected. Perhaps the patients are unusual or unique, but we should take a little more time before affixing labels to them. Once it's there, it isn't easily withdrawn, and judgments are made.

We really can't escape, though. This process of labeling begins from the moment we draw breath, at 7 lbs 5 oz 21 inches, and ends when we draw our last breath, at whatever hour and minute we leave this earth. In between, we are labeled many things: tough, rebellious, hard-working, loving, challenging, difficult, amazing, thick, thin, young, old, healthy, in failing health, and a myriad of variations from this list. We could be described as difficult or easy to work with by the same group of people, depending on when and how you ask. That is why nurses generally dislike labels. Labels represent a narrow window of time, a singular focus. Life is not like that. Life is fluid and constantly changing.

Labels. We stop to think about conforming to categories when filling out demographic surveys. Is it time for a new age group? 55-64? Race? Religion? Height? Weight? (Hmmm, let's see, are they asking for the weight on my driver's license, the weight on my home scalewhich we know weighs heavyor the last doctor's office weight?) Don't laugh, because the next category will be the BMI, which as any female knows, will label you as too short for the weight you have specified.

OK, I digress, but if I learned anything during this year of negative press, amid the very contentious election of 2016, it's that although we generally dislike labels, there is one that I never mind utilizing. It's called being a nurse. That's one label I wear with pride. It never goes out of style! It requires no explanation and has survived the test of time. Go ahead, check that box! Make your mark large and proud.

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About this Blog


    Diane M. Goodman, APRN, BC, CCRN, CNRN
    Occupation: Clinical Educator
    Setting: Advocate Condell Medical Center, Libertyville, Ill

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