What IS a Nursing Unit Clerk, Anyway?

November 5, 2011

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!


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Thank you for sharing this article!