HEALTH CARE: Men In White – Male nurses redefine “pink-collared” profession

TRAVERSE CITY – One patient called him “doctor” all night long. Another wanted to know how long it would be until he was a doctor. What Erik Houk, RN, wants to know is: Why would he want to be a doctor?

Every doctor Houk ever knew was always at the hospital, regardless of time of day or day of the week. And while Houk knew he wanted to help people through a career in health care, he also wanted to work fewer hours.

So, he opted for a career in nursing, joining the many men now entering a traditionally female profession.

“Nursing opens so many doors, you can do so many things with it,” said Houk, a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. “And being a nurse means being with so many people. You’re a psychologist, mediator, friend and more.”

The diversity of the nursing profession has attracted more and more men in the last several years. The percentage of male nurses employed by Munson rose from 5.7 percent in 1991 to seven percent in 1995 to nine percent in 1998. In Petoskey, Northern Michigan Hospital’s Healthshare Group of nurses is currently 10 percent male.

The number of male students in nursing schools is also rising. Houk recently graduated from the largest male class in history at Hurley Medical Center School of Nursing in Flint. Out of 40 students, seven were male. Twenty years ago, Mark Baranski, RN, was the only male in a class of 50 students.

Baranski, director of emergency services at Munson, has seen the changes in the nursing profession parallel changes throughout American culture.

“Society on the whole is less biased against certain genders and occupations,” he said. “It’s reflective of what we are seeing throughout society as women have become more empowered.” And for those in the field, it’s apparent that gender is unrelated to the quality of health care. Janet Jackson, vice president of patient care services at Munson, has seen more men entering nursing and more women entering medicine in the last 20 years.

“Patients prefer a nurse who is knowledgeable, educated and able to provide the care they need,” she said. “It has very little to do with gender.”

Jackson has worked with male nurses in every department of the hospital and doesn’t see any one area of health care that attracts men more.

However, RN Jeff Prell, director of nursing at Boulder Park Terrace, a long-term care and rehabilitation facility of Northern Michigan Hospital, has witnessed one floor that keeps men on their toes: obstetrics.

One night on the skeleton midnight shift, he was called to the OB/GYN floor to work in a pinch.

“I’ve always been well received by patients, but that night the women made one thing very clear: They didn’t even want to look at me!” he said, with a laugh. “And understandably so. It was the worst experience for me.”

Although male nurses have found that some female patients are uncomfortable, men usually appreciate a male nurse.

“Men have forever had to subject themselves and all their modesty to women,” said registered nurse Paul Herendeen, who works on the oncology floor at Munson. “Men feel more comfortable and appreciate working with a man. Plus, it always helps to have a strong sense of humor!”

Working side-by-side with women has rarely been an issue for most male nurses, who’ve felt welcomed into the profession from the beginning.

Mary Ann Verbanic, RN, enjoys the diverse staff at Munson and contends that the added physical strength of men is one plus.

“Men are usually stronger and nursing at times is a very physical job,” she said. “And men are every bit as adept, caring and nurturing as females.”

The changing workforce may bring monetary improvements to the profession, as well.

“Some women feel that more men in the profession will equalize benefits and wages because, historically, male-dominated fields have done better in advancement and wages,” Herendeen said.

Prell added that overall, the abundance of nursing jobs on the market will keep the field alive and competitive, with nursing based on qualification, not gender. BIZNEWS