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

Harold Barkley/Getty ImagesHere’s how being a nurse is different now than it was 50 years ago.
  • Nurses Appreciation Week, which is from May 6 to 12, recognises the crucial role nurses and nursing staff play in the US and around the globe.
  • 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 half century, including how the novel coronavirus pandemic has put them on the frontlines of one of the world’s biggest health crises.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Nurses Appreciation Week, which is from May 6 to 12, calls attention to the important role nurses and nursing staff play in the US and around the globe. To mark the start of the international week of recognition, Business Insider looked at some of the biggest changes to the nursing industry in the last five decades.

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.

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 specialised in new fields like forensic nursing and informatics. Now, they’re on the frontlines of the world’s coronavirus pandemic, risking their lives to help others in dire medical need.

Here’s a visual look at some of the ways nursing has changed in the last 50 years.


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

Alex Wong / Staff / Getty Images

Source: Fast Company, Bureau of Labour 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.

Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Source: Advisory Board


Even 20 years ago, nurse practitioner Kelley Rieger recalls having to climb over patients to perform CPR in a skirt and tights.

Don Dutton / Contributor / Getty Images

Source: Fast Company


Today, nursing requires extensive training and education.

Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

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 standardised test administered nationwide.

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

Source: Business Insider, Learn How to Become


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

Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Source: Dequesne University School of Nursing


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

Corbis/Getty Images

Source: Dequesne University School of Nursing


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

Getty Images

Source: The University of Vermont Medical Centre


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

VCG/Getty Images

Source: The University of Vermont Medical Centre


Record keeping also became more efficient than it was 50 years ago. After the US government allocated $US19.2 billion to increase the use of electronic health records in 2009, digital notes have become commonplace.

Bert Hardy / Stringer / Getty Images

Source: The Journal for Nurse Practitioners


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

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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…

BSIP/Getty Images

Source: The National Nursing Workforce Study


…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.

Barbara Alper/Getty Images

“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


Nurses are on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Nurses all over the world are crucial in the battle against the novel coronavirus, which causes a disease known as COVID-19. They continue to treat patients despite shortages of medical equipment, lack of guidance from hospitals, and gruelling hours.

The shortage of nurses is so bad that retired nurses are being asked to come back into the workforce. A former health official for President Obama recently went as far as to propose another solution to the nurse staffing crisis amid the pandemic: Pay them $US5,000 in monthly bonuses.

One nurse, who asked to remain anonymous, recently described a particularly difficult shift treating COVID-19 patients in New York City, one of the country’s hot spots for the virus:

“I kept having these little moments of tearing up. I’m not totally sure why, but I think it’s a combination of how surreal, overwhelming, unfair, and unpredictable it all feels,” they told Business Insider. “And it’s horrifying to think we’re not even close to the peak.”

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.