“It’s an opportunity each year for not just organizations, but for society as a whole to highlight the importance of nursing,” says Maureen Swick, CEO of the American Organization of Nurse Executives and senior vice president and chief nursing officer for the American Hospital Association. AONE, established in 1967, is an AHA-related organization.

Hospitals and other providers recognize their nurses in myriad ways during National Nurses Week, says Beverly Hancock, director of educational programs for AONE. Some hold an award ceremony, display posters highlighting the work that nurses do or treat their nursing staff to a complimentary meal. Others may use it as an occasion to offer professional development to their nurses.

This year’s theme, set by the American Nurses Association, is "Nursing: the Balance of Mind, Body and Spirit" and focuses on the year of the “healthy nurse,” says Hancock.

In 1953, Dorothy Sutherland of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health & Human Services) sent a proposal to President Eisenhower to proclaim a Nurse Day in October 1954, but no action was taken. May 6 was formally designated by President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1982 as National Recognition Day for Nurses; in 1993, National Nurses Week was permanently designated as May 6–12, the 12th being the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. The week coincides with National Hospital Week, May 7–13, and highlights the interdisciplinary collaboration among the health care workforce, says Hancock. [See an interactive timeline of the history of National Nurses Week.]

“Everyone on the health care team needs to be fully equipped with education, resources and support in providing good patient care. It’s a continuing challenge,” says Hancock. 

The nursing profession has evolved significantly over time, with more nurses obtaining advanced education, taking on a more prominent role in patient safety and quality, and being part of the decision-making, says Hancock. “More places now value nurses. They’re an equal contributor to the care team and an important voice. Nurses are using more evidence, are more involved in research and are at higher executive levels."

While a special week dedicated to nursing demonstrates the value that nursing has to the health of our nation, says Swick,“every day is an opportunity to recognize, appreciate and value what nurses bring."