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Journal of Nursing

Do Nurses Need Biology?

Rosemary Oh-McGinnis, PhD and Lynette Sigola, MBChB (Hons), PhD [email protected]


The human body is truly intriguing which makes teaching Anatomy and Physiology exhilarating. At our institution which has large Registered Nursing degree and Psychiatric Nursing degree programs, students must complete a full year of Anatomy and Physiology courses (Anatomy refers to the study of structures and Physiology refers to the study of the functions of these structures). In these courses the major systems of the human body are taught, including the urinary, digestive, skeletal, reproductive, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine and nervous systems, as well as other relevant topics such as Genetics and Immunology.

In addition to Anatomy and Physiology, depending on their specialization, nursing students are later required to take other Biology courses such as Medical Microbiology and Pathophysiology which serve to equip students with a sound understanding of the pathological basis of many different diseases. There is no end to how much can be learned about biology and the human body.

The word “biology” literally means the “study of life”, and includes all living organisms, whether it is the human body, a plant, a fungus, a protist, a bacterium or a virus (which is acellular). It seems apparent that the role of nurses as healthcare providers would require a deep appreciation of life and a solid understanding of how living things like the human body work. It is then surprising to us as Biology instructors when we are asked by our students “Why do I need to know Biology if I’m going to become a nurse?”

Although perhaps the question is initially shocking, it is a legitimate question that many young students ask as they explore future careers options, including the possibility of becoming a nurse. Our response to this question is two-fold: firstly, knowing Biology even at a basic level can contribute to rational decisions about patient management and allow for quick and appropriate responses to emergencies. These responses, from nurses who are grounded in a firm knowledge of Biology, contribute to the well-being of patients and their families. We gently remind our students of the joy of learning Biology and the privilege of applying all of that knowledge they have gained in the workplace.

Secondly, knowing Biology can significantly contribute to the important role that nurses play as educators. The incessant communicating, providing information, educating, and answering questions that nurses engage in with patients and their families and doctors would be much more difficult without sufficient knowledge of Biology.
Perhaps the usefulness of Biology may not be obvious until nursing students have had the chance to apply their knowledge in the clinical setting. Several nurses who have previously gone through our Nursing program have kept in touch with us to inform us in retrospect how much they appreciated taking Biology courses. Recently at a 20-year high school reunion, one of us bumped into a colleague who went through our Nursing program twenty years ago and has been a nurse since that time. She recounts with fond memories the Biology courses she took and to this day uses her notes from those courses to refresh her memory and help her with her patients’ cases.

Effective understanding and communication of biological concepts is also pertinent in post-degree training programs, such as nurse practitioners, nurses in specializations such as cardiology, pediatrics and several others, as well as nurses pursuing graduate studies, research and academic careers.

The future of nursing in part continues to depend on adequate and appropriate training of nurses in the field of Biology. Too often Biology is thought of as simply memorizing facts about the human body, by students in many disciplines and not just nursing students. As Biology instructors, we are left with the critical task of not only continuing to provide a sound foundation of Biology to our future nurses but of somehow instilling within them a passion for knowing the human body so thoroughly that it will help them succeed in their future nursing careers.

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