THEN AND NOW: Here's how being a nurse has changed in the last 50 years

nurses 1971

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Here's how being a nurse is different now than it was 50 years ago.

  • Fifty years ago, nurses received much less formal education than they do today. Doctors treated nurses more as assistants and caregivers than respected medical professionals, according to Nurse.org.
  • Here's a visual look at how being a nurse has changed in the last 50 years.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A lot has changed since nurses wore white skirts and stockings to work.

Fifty years ago, doctors still treated nurses as assistants, and the role was seen as an extension of women's caregiving instead of as a career. The role required less formal education, and nurses had just a "rudimentary" understanding of scientific medical care, according to Minority Nurse.
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Read more: What it's REALLY like to be a nurse, one of the most satisfying and in-demand jobs in America right now

Today, nursing makes up the largest workforce in healthcare - and continues to grow as America's baby boomer population ages. Nurses can attain various higher education certifications and degrees, and can be highly specialized in new fields like forensic nursing and informatics. Though the industry has made strides in gender and racial diversity, discrimination still exists.

Here's a visual look at some of the ways nursing has changed in the last 50 years:
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Today, nurses make up the largest workforce in healthcare, and is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country.

Today, nurses make up the largest workforce in healthcare, and is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country.

Source: Fast Company, Bureau of Labor Statistics

While considered a prestigious profession today, nurses in the 1960s were "treated as handmaidens of physicians" who were expected to carry out orders without question.

While considered a prestigious profession today, nurses in the 1960s were "treated as handmaidens of physicians" who were expected to carry out orders without question.

Source: Advisory Board

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Even 20 years ago, nurse practitioner Kelley Rieger recalls giving physicians a chair and cigarettes during her work.

Even 20 years ago, nurse practitioner Kelley Rieger recalls giving physicians a chair and cigarettes during her work.

Source: Fast Company

Today, nursing requires extensive training and education.

Today, nursing requires extensive training and education.

Nurses told Business Insider reporter Lyndsey Reid the most common way to become a nurse is to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Programs like the BSN help prepare prospective nurses pass the NCLEX-RN exam, a six-hour long standardized test administered nationwide.

From there, nurses must obtain a state license to become a registered nurse. Nurses can then get a master's degree to get more specialized roles, or a doctorate if they wish to teach or do research.

Source: Business Insider, Learn How to Become

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The National Council of State Boards of Nursing — the organization that administers national testing — was not even around until 1978. Only 172 college-based nursing programs existed in 1960, compared to the 674 bachelor's programs today.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing — the organization that administers national testing — was not even around until 1978. Only 172 college-based nursing programs existed in 1960, compared to the 674 bachelor's programs today.

Source: Nurse.org, American Association of Colleges of Nursing

Nurse uniforms have undergone drastic changes over the last 50 years. White dresses with caps and stockings used to be standard in the industry.

Nurse uniforms have undergone drastic changes over the last 50 years. White dresses with caps and stockings used to be standard in the industry.

Source: Dequesne University School of Nursing

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Starting in the 1980s, nurses began wearing scrubs. Scrubs are easy to move in, inexpensive, and can be easily washed and re-used.

Starting in the 1980s, nurses began wearing scrubs. Scrubs are easy to move in, inexpensive, and can be easily washed and re-used.

Source: Dequesne University School of Nursing

Nurses also had to care for patients for much longer periods of time than today. 30 years ago, a cataract surgery patient would stay in the hospital for seven days...

Nurses also had to care for patients for much longer periods of time than today. 30 years ago, a cataract surgery patient would stay in the hospital for seven days...

Source: The University of Vermont Medical Center

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Today, that same patient leaves the day of the surgery. Shorter stays mean nurses must be more efficient about educating and caring for patients.

Today, that same patient leaves the day of the surgery. Shorter stays mean nurses must be more efficient about educating and caring for patients.

Source: The University of Vermont Medical Center

Record keeping also became more efficient than it was 50 years ago. After the US government allocated $19.2 billion to increase the use of electronic health records in 2009, digital notes have become commonplace.

Record keeping also became more efficient than it was 50 years ago. After the US government allocated $19.2 billion to increase the use of electronic health records in 2009, digital notes have become commonplace.

Source: The Journal for Nurse Practitioners

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Diversity within the field has also increased. Until the 1960s, many hospitals were divided by color. In 1971, the National Black Nurses Association was founded to improve working conditions for black nurses.

Diversity within the field has also increased. Until the 1960s, many hospitals were divided by color. In 1971, the National Black Nurses Association was founded to improve working conditions for black nurses.

Source: Minority Nurse, National Black Nurses Association

More men are entering the profession. As of 2017, about 19% of registered nurses were minorities and 9.1% were men...

More men are entering the profession. As of 2017, about 19% of registered nurses were minorities and 9.1% were men...

Source: The National Nursing Workforce Study

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...but a gender pay gap still exists among male and female nurses, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

...but a gender pay gap still exists among male and female nurses, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The roles of (registered nurses) are expanding with implementation of the Affordable Care Act and emphasis on team-based care delivery," authors of the study stated. "These results may motivate nurse employers, including physicians, to examine their pay structures and act to eliminate inequities."

Source: Fast Company, The Journal of the American Medical Association