Should Nurses Be Held to a Higher Standard of Health?

If we say that nurses should be held to a higher standard, what standard would that be?

Across the continent, we see nurses who smoke—sometimes after coming off duty after having nursed patients dying of smoking-induced illness. We see nurses eat unhealthy diets and gain weight to dangerous levels. We see nurses who don’t take care of their health by ignoring signs and symptoms of illness, ignoring screening guidelines for tests like mammograms, and others who live with mental illnesses, like depression or anxiety, and self-medicate. In other words, we see nurses behaving much like many others among the general population in the country.

But nurses are supposed to be front-line healthcare professionals. We are the ones who are supposed to be helping obese patients lose weight, smokers stop smoking, promoting preventative health care, and counseling for medication and treatment compliance. So, if we’re supposed to be doing all that, how can we if we don’t do it ourselves?

There is strong opinion on both sides. While what a nurse does during her private time is his or her own business, as long as it doesn’t impact on their ability to perform their duties at work, is this even an issue? Let’s look at both sides of the coin.

If we say that nurses should be held to a higher standard, what standard would that be? If we said that nurses couldn’t smoke, for example, would smokers be allowed into nursing programs? Would nurses have their licenses suspended if they were caught smoking? How would this be enforced? If we say that nurses can’t be obese, who would decide what the cut off level is between being overweight and being obese? And, since being overweight isn’t all that healthy either, should there be a cut off? What about nurses who are anorexic? Should they be held to the same standards since being underweight is also a health risk?

What of nurses who don’t follow their doctors’ orders? Would there be a means to follow nurses to ensure they receive the recommended screening tests and follow through with treatments? What would be the end result if a nurse was caught not abiding by the rules?

Ok, now for the other side. A nurse cares for a patient who is dying of lung cancer and who was an admitted pack-a-day smoker. On her break, she goes outside and has a smoke. A family member sees their father’s nurse smoking, only hours after she advised the younger members of the family that they should consider breaking their smoking habit. What credibility does she have now? What of a nurse in a doctor’s office, for example, who has to provide patient teaching to a patient newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Let’s say she has to advise the patient about diet and exercise to try to keep the patient off medications, but what if the nurse is overweight and in need of following the same advice? Can the patient take her seriously?

Obviously, the issue of weight isn’t as cut and dry as it is with smoking. Some people are heavy and don’t overeat and do get exercise. But the patient doesn’t see that. The patient sees an overweight nurse telling him or her to not be like that. And why should they listen?

Is it a tough situation or is it a non-issue? Nurses are humans entitled to live their lives as their patients do. Or, because of the role they chose to take on, that of nurse, should they be held to the higher standard, of being a role model to the patients who they are supposed to be helping? What do you think?