Are Nurses and Doctors Setting a Good Example to Patients?


As I was driving to work one morning, I passed two of our local hospitals where several people were smoking. About half of those people were hospital staff, including a good number of nurses. The other half were visitors, patients, etc.
It occurred to me that while we encourage others to make healthy lifestyle choices as part our responsibilities, we are also subject to the same temptations of smoking, overeating, alcohol and drug use.
Let me begin by saying that this article is not intended to be judgmental or a sermon to those who engage in those habits. We are all adults and free to make whatever choices we wish. There are, however, some instances in which we do need to view our actions through the eyes of our patients.
Can overweight nurses advice patients about weight loss?
A variety of research studies have been done in recent years which examine the health habits of nurses – good or bad – and the impact that they may have on patients.
For example, we know that the prevalence of obesity in the general population in the U.S. has increased significantly over the past 20 to 30 years. We also know that obesity can put individuals at a higher risk for the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mobility issues, etc. Patient education with regards to these risks and the importance of weight management and exercise is an ever increasing part of our nurse responsibilities.
In fact, studies have generally shown that although the vast majority of nurses concede that obesity is a diagnosis which requires intervention, a large majority of nurses do not pursue this issue with obese patients. The reason for this isn’t exactly clear. Perhaps they are uncomfortable discussing this with their patients, or perhaps they feel that they lack the credibility to have that conversation due to their own appearance. Another possibility is that the nurses themselves need more education and validation of the health risks that obesity can cause.
How is stress affecting nurses and their patients?
Another condition of concern in the nursing population includes the physical and emotional complications from stress. Many nurses work in stressful environments, taking care of everyone else before taking care of themselves. We know that the physical effects of stress can include insomnia, gastric ulcers, heart disease, headaches, fertility problems, and eating disorders. Other negative effects include disruption of family life, anxiety, and a reduction in the quality of life.
We know that it is important to advise our patients that they should listen to their own bodies with regards to stress management and relaxation therapies, yet we typically do not take our own advice in this area. We teach the concepts of holistic care to students, yet we do not always lead by example when it comes to our own health. Perhaps we need to be better role models for our patients, students and new nurses with regards to how we acknowledge and manage stress in our lives.
Will patients listen to advice on smoking cessation when you smell like an ashtray?
Stress may be a factor in the prevalence of smoking. We know that it is unhealthy and that caring for a patient after a “smoke break” while we still smell like cigarettes isn’t a good idea, no matter what the patient’s diagnosis.
We are on the front lines of patient care. We often spend more time with patients than any other category of health care provider. We are not immune to diseases caused by our own health habits any more than our patients are immune.
One of the basic tenets of an effective nurse-patient relationship is trust. These are all part of our responsibility. Nurses, challenge yourselves to set a good example for your patients.
Will our patients trust and believe us if we demonstrate the same poor health habits that we tell them to change?


Lead Nurse Africa is a Pan-African nursing organization dedicated to public health promotion and professional development.

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