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Nursing 50 Years Back and Today: How

the Nursing Field Has Changed Over

the Last 50 Years
By MedHunters Staff

By Julie Blanche, ADRN

Fifty years is a long time in any life. In the life of the average nurse, the past 50 years
has seen many changes in nurses in general and the profession as a whole. Gone are
the days when nurses were thought of as little more than helpers or assistants for
doctors. Today’s nurses are health care professionals in their own right. They are
bright, capable, and often have a clearer picture of the overall situation than the
doctors they work side by side with.

Outside the field of nursing, the world has seen major changes over the past 50 years.
Those changes, in many cases, are nothing when compared to the changes that the
field of nursing has experienced in the same period of time.

What are some of these big changes the nursing field has seen in the last 50 years?

Nursing Uniforms in History

In the 1960s, nurses still wore dresses and stocking as their uniforms. It was during
this decade that things began to be a little more “buttoned down” and less formal for
nurses. The uniforms also take a turn in the direction of more fashionable than in the
past. Some of the more modern touches include belts and feminine cuffs. Don’t forget
the pillbox hat that was an essential part of the nurse’s uniform.

In the 1970s, more changes came to the way nurses dressed. Dresses were a little
shorter. The caps were beginning to lose importance in some hospitals across the

The 1980s saw the end of the nursing caps altogether. Most nurses will agree there
were few tears shed over the loss. Nurses also began wearing disposable aprons at this
point rather than cloth aprons and medical facilities became much less militant in
regards to restrictions on jewelry and cosmetics.
During the 1990s and today, nursing dresses have been replaced with much more user
friendly scrub suits. Scrub suits can be found in a wide variety of colors and styles.
Some hospitals have specific scrub suit colors for different types of hospital staff and
others allow nurses and other staff to choose colors and styles that appeal to them.
Today’s nursing uniforms are designed more for function than form but are also
considered much more comfortable than those worn throughout history.

Salaries of Nurses over the Past 50 Years

Over the past 50 years, nursing has experienced many changes when it comes to
salaries. During this time, there have been periods when the supply of nurses outstrips
demand when the demand for nurses is not able to keep up with the growing need.
Recent years have seen a much greater demand than there is supply. This has made
salaries over the past two decades grow at a surprising rate.

The good news for nurses entering the field today is that demand in the next decades
is only projected to grow. Today’s nurses, RNs specifically, can make as much as
$72,000 a year. Many registered nurses (RNs) in today’s market start out making as
much as $40,000. Of course, this is largely dependent on where nurses live, the type
of nursing positions that are being taken, and the demand for nurses in that area.

While this is definitely a respectable salary by today’s standards, it’s something

nurses in 1966, when a general duty nurse earned the whopping sum of $5,200 for a
year’s worth of service could hardly have imagined. Many nurses today bring home
in a month what the nurses of the 1960s and 1970s earned in a full year of service.
This salary change for nurses from an average salary of $2,100 in 1946 is the direct
result of a nursing shortage that was deemed critical at the time.

Job Demand for Nurses over the Past 50 Years

There have been ebbs and flows in the demand for nurses over the past 50 years.
During the 1960s there was an increased measure of demand for nurses as the result
of several acts including The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Child and
Health and Medical Assistance Act of 1965, and the Public Assistance Act of 1965. It
was also during this time that the Surgeon General made the announcement that a
minimum of 40,000 new nurses must graduate each year in order to meet the growing
needs of society’s overall health care.

Today, the nursing shortage is even more critical than even in the 1960s. With new
legislation looming and much uncertainty ahead in the future for those in the medical
field, it’s difficult to envision what the future holds for nurses, salaries, supply, and
demand. It is projected that by 2025, there will be a shortage of 260,000 nurses in the

The Roles of Nurses in Health Care

Not only has demand for nurses changed over time but so has the role that nurses play
in the overall medical health picture. Nurses have always been important to patient
care. Today’s roles are taking on more technologically challenging roles than at any
other point in history. Some nurses are taking over roles that were once reserved for
physicians (nurse midwives, for example).

Nurses are beginning to become more and more specialized than in days past. Today
there are specialties like OR (operating room) nurses, Geriatric nurses, medical-
surgical nurses, labor and delivery nurses, pediatric nurses, ICU Nurses, and even
psychiatric nurses. Education, continuing education, and clinical experience go a long
way today to ensure that nurses are on top of their games from the moment they
graduate nursing school until they retire from nursing. The workplace today is as
much a part of ongoing education in the respective fields for nurses as colleges and
other educational institutions.

This hasn’t always been the case. In recent years, the nurses role has become less that
of a caretaker for patients and more that of an advocate for patients. The nurse
assesses the condition of patients, measures the ability of a patient to make informed
decisions from him or herself or to provide informed consent for procedures. Today’s
nurse is a respected part of a team that is dedicated to delivering excellent patient

In addition to the various types of nursing fields to pursue, there are different nursing
positions that can be obtained by further education as a nurse.

* Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

* Associate’s Degree Registered Nurse (ADRN or ADN)
* Bachelor of Science Degree Registered Nurse (BSRN or BSN)
* Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)
* Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA)
* Nurse Practitioners (NP)
* Nurse Midwives (CNM)

The Role of Men and Women in Nursing

Nursing continues to be the one field in which women are able to approach the glass
salary ceiling that separates them from men. In many careers, men outpace women in
earnings. In this field, men and women, consistently earn the same amount of money.
Nurses can earn a comfortable salary today and additional education and training can
increase that salary.

With many hospitals offering tuition assistance or reimbursement for continuing

education, it makes sense for nurses interested in earning more or learning more to do
so. Women in nursing face no glass ceiling and few limitations on where their
education can take them.

They’ve come a long way when it comes to nursing but not quite so long as men in
this field. There was a time when men were simply not nurses. Those days have long
gone and though women still outnumber men in nursing, there are many male nurses
who earn great salaries and excel in the field.
The old stereotypes do not seem to apply when it comes to nursing as a career choice.
Men and women are equally capable of handling the physical, mental, and emotional
demands that a career in nursing presents.

Technology in Nursing

Technology today has made the job of nurses much easier than in the past. In many
ways, it frees up more time for nurses to devote to direct patient care. Technology
allows nurses to measure vital signs quickly, record information efficiently, and to
administer medications.

Modern marvels have not yet managed to replace the need for nurses to perform
diagnostics that will not likely ever be managed by computer or machine. The imprint
of new medical technology can be seen in steadily decreasing patient stays and
lengthening life expectancy rates.

Nurses still need to rely on their eyes, their minds, and their intuition in order to read
patients and reveal stories that vital signs and statistics alone don’t tell. Despite all
these advances, there is no reason to believe that demand for nurses will ebb as a
result of the turning tides of technology.

Throughout the years, there have been many changes in the nursing profession as a
whole. We are looking towards a bright new future for nurses and the nursing field.
Nurses continue to be the heart and soul of medical institutions across the country and
around the world. It is with great interest that we look for the changes that will take
place in nursing over the next 50 years.


History of American Uniforms

RN Hourly Rate

Changes in Nursing

Nursing Shortage

Winning Essays

Nursing Today and Yesterday