Nursing Notes

October 28, 2009

Why Nurse Stereotypes Are Bad for Health – Well Blog – NYTimes.com

Filed under: Nursing — Shirley @ 3:36 am
Tags: , , ,

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while now, but held back because #1 my opinion is just that and #2 television and movies are a personal choice.  When I found this article, I decided to go ahead and post it.  The author touches on many of the objections I have to the way nurses are portrayed in the media.

It was encouraging to find another nurse who felt similar to me.  I can hardly watch medical shows on television anymore.  I have tried to watch the new batch of Nurse shows but turned them off after only a few minutes.

Read the article below and then let me know what you think about how we are portrayed in the media.


By Theresa Brown, R.N.

My husband was working recently on a New York Times crossword puzzle when he called me over. “Hey, look at this one.

”The clue was “White-cap wearer” and the answer was . . . Nurse.

What?! There may be nurses in the hinterlands who still wear white caps, but no nurse I trained with or work with would be caught on the floor in a “nurse’s cap.” The outdated suggestion of wearing a cap raises the hackles of every nurse I know.

In the new book “Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk,” co-authors Sandy Summers and Harry Jacobs Summers explore the dated and false images of nursing that still persist in the media, ranging from popular television shows to the crossword puzzle. They cited a February 2007 Times puzzle that listed “I.C.U. helpers” as a clue. (The answer was RNs.)

“Helpers?” the writers asked with exasperated italics. That one word encapsulates their critique of how nurses are typically portrayed on entertainment television, in movies and in most journalism.

Nurses are not “helpers,” the authors argue. Nurses work with medical doctors, but not for them. Hospital nurses are hired and fired by other nurses, answer to a unit manager who is a nurse, and follow the protocols set by more senior nursing officers. Health care works best when doctors and nurses communicate, but the authors note that nursing is an autonomous profession and the formal management structure of most hospitals keeps M.D.’s and R.N.’s separate and independent.

Maintaining a nurse’s independent status is about saving lives, note the authors. “One of nurses’ most important professional roles is to act as an independent check on physician care plans to protect patients and ensure good care,” they write.

In nursing school, we hear over and over that keeping patients safe is a crucial part of the job, but we rarely see that role of nurses portrayed in the media. It’s not that doctors constantly make mistakes — they don’t. But in the ordered chaos of the modern hospital it’s good to have the person who spends the most time with the patient — the nurse — keeping a watchful eye on his or her patient’s care, and nurses feel that obligation heavily.

Sandy Summers was an emergency department and intensive care nurse herself for many years and now runs a nonprofit advocacy organization called The Truth About Nursing. Her co-author, Harry Jacobs Summers, is a lawyer and senior adviser for the group.

“Saving Lives” is an important book because it so clearly delineates how ubiquitous negative portrayals of nursing are in today’s media, particularly three common stereotypes of nurses — the “Naughty Nurse,” the “Angel” and the “Battle Axe.” They argue that these images of nursing degrade the profession by portraying nurses as either vixens, saints or harridans, not college-educated health care workers with life and death responsibilities.

The popular medical television shows “ER,” “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scrubs” receive the bulk of the authors complaints. They list numerous examples of nurses acting as “helpers” in these TV programs rather than autonomous and knowledgeable professionals. The writers also contend that these shows go out of their way to denigrate nurses and insult nursing as a profession. In one episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” for instance, a male doctor insults a female doctor by calling her a nurse.

Another problem is that popular television shows often show doctors doing nurse’s jobs: giving medications, checking I.V.’s, educating patients about treatment, and providing ongoing emotional support from shift to shift. Of course, the focus of the storyline is often on the physician, so it may simply be easier to write and follow if the doctors do all the work. A notable, but still controversial, exception is the new Showtime program “Nurse Jackie,” which features Edie Falco as a capable and assertive nurse, although she’s also highly troubled and hardly a role model.

The problem with how nurses are portrayed in the media is that it has the potential to devalue the way we view nurses in the real world. The result is less support for important policy issues like short staffing and nurse burnout.

I certainly never expected my beloved New York Times crossword to reinforce an outdated nursing stereotype. White-cap wearer, indeed! Nurses don’t need headgear to show the world what we do. It’s what’s inside of our heads that counts.

Theresa Brown is an oncology nurse and a regular contributor to the Well blog.

Why Nurse Stereotypes Are Bad for Health – Well Blog – NYTimes.com

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2 Comments »

  1. It is seriously unfortunate that nurses aren’t portrayed as significant contributors to the health system, but are instead merely the assistants of the doctor. As an Intensive Care Unit nurse, my wife is monitoring her patients, dealing with upset families, administering medication and educating interns on a regular basis. Sadly television continues to present nurses in a peripheral manner with the doctor doing all the hard work.

    Combine this with the long hours and frequent arrogance of some doctors in the field and nursing shortages are not that hard to explain.

    Comment by Wellescent Health — October 28, 2009 @ 5:53 pm | Reply

    • First, I want to thank you for the comment. I have to agree with you about the way television portrays nurses as non-essential but I know that without nurses the hospitals would close. I do think that there is a shift in the way doctors perceive us that is a move in the right direction. The only problem I have that is ongoing is with, what I call, “the baby doctors” who are simply flexing their doctor muscles. With them, a really good, experienced nurse only needs a stern look and an attitude to correct the insult. Please keep reading and commenting. I will look forward to it.

      Comment by Shirley Williams — November 5, 2009 @ 3:59 am | Reply


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