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What IS a Nursing Unit Clerk, Anyway?

For some bizarre reason, people seem to stop listening after the word “Nursing” and assume she or he is some kind of nurse. I’m not sure why, but I think it is because the job of the Nursing Unit Clerk (also known as Health Unit Coordinator, Unit Clerk, Unit Coordinator, Medical Unit Secretary, or the really old term that makes most of us shudder…Ward Clerk), is not well-known at all, despite it being an essential element of every health care team.

When we think of hospitals, we generally think of doctors and nurses. We might think of cleaning staff, kitchen staff, social workers, physiotherapists, and all sorts of management…but rarely do people even know about the role of the UC.

So Let Me Try to Explain…

This skilled, college-certified coordinator is often the first person you encounter when walking onto a nursing unit in a hospital. The UC has in-depth training in Medical Terminology, Pharmacology and Communications, among other subjects. She/he liaises daily with doctors and nurses and allied health professionals, and coordinates many of the activities of the unit.

The UC is expected to have all the answers, know where everyone is at all times, and to anticipate the needs of staff and patients. (Think: Radar O’Reilley..he was an EXCELLENT unit clerk!)

Reading and interpreting physicians’ handwriting is part of the job. Processing doctors’ orders, booking tests, booking ambulances and procedures, ordering supplies and equipment, setting up services after discharge, making sure pre-operative testing is done and results are available, and maintaining confidential medical records are all aspects of the UC role.

The UC is a whiz at the computer, can fix jammed printers, fax and photocopier machines, and is excellent with multi-lined telephone systems.

The UC is trained for crisis, and can efficiently coordinate personnel and equipment needed to deal with all sorts of crises in a timely manner.

The UC is trained in basic anatomy and physiology. She/he understands the nature of all manner of laboratory and diagnostic tests, and the patient preparation needed for xrays, nuclear medicine scans, MRIs, CT scans and numerous other diagnostic imaging technologies. The UC knows hundreds of abbreviations and medical transcription symbols and retains all sorts of information that can be recalled at any given moment.

The Unit Clerk knows when test results are abnormal, and alerts the appropriate medical personnel. He/she communicates regularly with the Pharmacy, the Dietary Department, the Laboratory and the Stores Department for services the patient needs.

The UC has excellent people skills. He/she is proficient in dealing with tearful relatives, can diffuse anger, explain procedure, and sort out confusion.The UC is the consistent person at the front desk, and sets the tone of the unit for the day.

The Unit Clerk/Coordinator does what she/he does so the nurses can spend less time at the desk and more time hands-on with the patient.

The coordinator or unit clerk works days, evenings and night shifts. There is a UC in every patient care area of the hospital, including the Operating Room, the Emergency Department, and all Critical Care Areas.

The UC can maneuver around many personality types and remain professional, despite being around stressful situations and people who are sometimes seriously stressed. She/he is confidential and compassionate, and is an integral part of the health care team.

So Now You Know.

There is little public recognition of the existence of this role. There are public and private training programs across North America, and there is an professional association that has chapters in Canada and the US that holds annual conferences and provides further training for people doing this job: The National Association of Health Unit Coordinators.

This is an important position that warrants some recognition both by the public and by  other health care professionals and employers. It is a unique, ever-evolving job that daily affects the safe and expedient delivery of medical care to all of us.

So…hug your local UC today!

Jenn

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • be March 10, 2016, 6:57 pm

    Yes, you see all the posts on nurses, nurses, nurses, most of us UC/US know way more than them! Compare 30years to 1-5 ! Most of doctors depend more on uc/us and although they speak to nurse will backtrack to uc/us to make sure its done! Also UC/US are the one that nurses go to for info even after doctors speak w them first, they couldn’t make it

    • JennSwanson March 11, 2016, 7:18 am

      I think I would say that nurses and UC’s have different expertise, and so it makes sense that nurses would ask UC’s about things that a UC is an expert in. It is true that it’s rare to find articles or information about Unit Clerks. The Natioanl Association of Health Unit Coordinators has a regular newsletter as well as an annual conference dedicated exclusively to Unit Clerk/Coordinator topics. I’ll be at this year’s conference in Seattle and would love to meet you!

  • Jasmine January 11, 2016, 12:59 pm

    I am currently enrolled to be a nursing unit clerk in Ontario, the course is very interesting and challenging, I can not wait to be done and start working as a nursing unit clerk!

    • JennSwanson January 11, 2016, 1:03 pm

      Thanks for the comment Jasmine. It’s a fascinating job because it’s different every single shift, and even after doing it for 23 years, I enjoyed going to work. How long is your program?

    • Kelvin Nikkel March 11, 2016, 1:59 am

      Wishing you the best Jasmine.

      I was a UC for 10 years and had the honor of having Jennifer as my instructor. She brought the best out in me and because of her, I excelled at my position in every ward I went to. I especially enjoyed the fast pace of the ER over any other ward and did that position full time for about 2 years. May be getting back into it even at the age of 59. Very challenging and rewarding at the same time.

      • JennSwanson March 11, 2016, 7:19 am

        Thank you for your kind words Kelvin, and I look forward to hearing about whether you get back to being the great UC I know you to be!

  • Janice October 9, 2015, 7:16 pm

    I have been a Unit Clerk in a busy ER for the last 11 yrs. One thing you missed is how often the UC is blatantly robbed of pens, staplers, scissors and anything else someone in the Unit deems necessary! If I had a nickel for every time my pen was stolen I’d be a millionaire!

    • JennSwanson October 10, 2015, 8:34 am

      Lol! You are absolutely correct, Janice. I got to keeping my pens and pencils in my pocket or hand at all times…nothing more frustrating than trying to symbolize on an order and not being able to find a pen! Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    • Kelvin Nikkel March 11, 2016, 5:32 pm

      I usually took my main black pen and used an elastic band to strap my red pen to it for ease of use when symbolizing. It was a great time saver and it was amazing how fast you could switch pens in a heartbeat.

      Most times just looking at the pen setup would deter the nurse/doctor but what really irked me was when a nurse or a doctor would take my pen set and separate them so that they could use them.

  • Kelvin Nikkel June 3, 2014, 12:15 am

    Thank you Jennifer for the well documentation of what we as Unit Coordinators
    do on a daily basis. After reading it all, it just about made my head spin. LOL

    However having a fantastic instructor such as yourself, I felt confident in my role
    making the unit I was on run as smoothly as possible. No matter if it was the
    Psych ward or Emergency, I felt confident that I could make it all work and that
    the staff soon realized that they could depend on me to get the job done right.

    Thanks again…

    • JennSwanson June 3, 2014, 8:24 am

      I will never forget you singing the names of the drugs to the tune of Mary Had a Little Lamb and having the other students learn your ditty. During the pharmacology exam, I could see several students singing to themselves as they had to answer the trade or generic names for each drug! Memory techniques,including putting unfamiliar words to familiar tunes, as Kelvin did, help us to remember when we need to…and unit clerks/coordinators have to remember a LOT! Thanks for sharing, Kelvin!

      • Kelvin Nikkel June 3, 2014, 4:43 pm

        LOL To tell you the truth I forgot all about that however, now that you mentioned that, I STILL remember all the drug names in that group even though I have been away from being a UC for over 3 years.

  • Sue Haynie May 2, 2014, 12:46 pm

    Jenn,
    I also thought how things are changing in the world of UC from the old standard of doing doctors orders and such. In my new hospital in Phoenix, AZ I did not do doctors orders and all the charting. It is more administrational duties. Answering phones and directing people around the unit and more computer knowledge instead of hands on knowledge of medicine which I miss. I had to know everything as you said in this article and now when I see new people coming on board they do not have this knowledge and do not understand what we did in the years before technology came about with electronic charting.

    • JennSwanson May 2, 2014, 1:00 pm

      Yes it has changed a lot and still is. I imagine over 40 yrs you have seen it all! We still have some hospitals not using electronic med records, so still teach hand-on processing, but I imagine some of that will shift in the next 5 yrs or so. I think communication skills will become an even bigger “soft skill” to have as a UC. Great comments, Sue! 😉

  • Sue Haynie May 2, 2014, 12:38 pm

    Jenn,
    This article was very well written. I have worked as a UC for over 40 years and I am now retired. Thank you for a great description of what we do on a daily basis in the hospital setting working with nurses, doctors, patients and ancillary staff.

    • JennSwanson May 2, 2014, 12:42 pm

      Thank you Sue, so glad you liked it. What city did you work in? I’m always glad to help people explain what it is as even after my 23 years, some people thought I was a nurse! Cheers, Jenn

      • Sue Haynie May 2, 2014, 12:47 pm

        Phoenix Arizona working at Banner Estrella Medical Center.

  • Lisa Gedak March 1, 2013, 1:29 pm

    I have added a link to your article on my blog! This is the best explanation I have ever seen in regards to a UC!!! I will be sharing this with my students! (future UC’s)

    Cheers, Lisa

    • JennSwanson March 1, 2013, 2:20 pm

      Thank-you very much, Lisa, I appreciate the feedback and the link!
      Where (in what city/country) do you teach UC’s?
      I am looking for topic ideas around communication for future posts, so let me know if you have thoughts on what would be of help to your students. I teach Human Relation Skills to UC students here in Vancouver, and I know it’s a huge subject.
      Thanks again for stopping by!
      Jenn

  • Christine January 11, 2013, 4:45 pm

    Hi Jenn!
    THANK YOU for writing this awesome description of what/who a Nursing Unit Assistant does/is!!! I am a proud NUA from British Columbia, Canada, and you accurately described my daily duties at work!!!! I absolutely LOVE my job and am so proud of the hard work we do and feel very much a part of my health care team every day.
    I will surely pass this on to my fellow NUA’s.
    respectfully,
    Christine

    • JennSwanson January 11, 2013, 5:34 pm

      Hey Christine! Thank-you for your comments and I’m glad this article was helpful to you. I am so glad you love your job…we need more people like you in the system for sure. I would appreciate you sharing this with the other NUA’s. Do you have any other ideas for topics around communication that you would like to see? I always love ideas.
      cheers,
      Jenn

  • Sandi November 5, 2011, 3:41 pm

    Awesome Jenn! I love it when people call me Radar, and isn’t it amazing how the assumption is just there that we (the UC’s) can fix anything! Fortunately, I almost always can, but if I can’t I do know who will.

    • Jennifer Swanson November 5, 2011, 4:34 pm

      It is amazing Sandi…and it’s true…no one else has the time, it seems, and when you need the piece of equipment asap…well, you do it. Thanks for visiting!
      Jenn

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