I recently watched NYMED. Good show. One nurse looked directly into the camera to let viewers know that the most common question she is asked by patients in the ER is if she is single. Other scenes involved patients commenting on the anatomy of nurses with them turning to the camera with an I can’t believe he just said that look. NYMED is reality television. This article was already a draft when THE DOCTORS (a fav show along with Dr. Oz) conducted man-in-street interviews showing random people two photos –one of a nurse wearing blue medical scrubs; the other showing a scantily clad so-called hot nurse. They randomly asked people which nurse would you want treating you? Most picked the hot nurse. I wondered if the perception of the nursing profession in the media affects or distorts reality.
Sandy and Harry Summers think it most certainly does. They co-wrote a series in 2010 called, “The Image of Nursing: Does nursing’s media image matter?” They are also the authors of “Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All At Risk.”
The authors write: “In these ubiquitous media products nurses are portrayed as ‘no more than submissive helpers of the physicians who do everything that matters.'”
Benissa Salem, a former news freelancer at ABC is a Masters prepared Registered Nurse (RN). She is currently a PhD candidate at the UCLA School of Nursing. She agrees saying calling nursing handmaidens undervalues their contributions to academia, research, and evidence-based practice. As a research nurse, she is on the front lines in Los Angeles, screening, educating homeless populations about Hepatitis A, B and C transmission, as well as HIV.
As a public health nurse, she teaches her clients how to protect themselves from communicable diseases, navigate healthcare systems, and reduce risky behaviors, which is contrary to what recent news suggests is a sexy or stupid stereotype garnered from YouTube or other television programs. Her dual background in journalism and nursing has undoubtedly prepared her to communicate effectively, educate, and raise awareness. Salem says, “Nurses comprise the largest group of healthcare providers; yet, many do not know what our profession encompasses. Nurses are academicians, researchers and clinical experts. However, the image of the nurse in the popular press is often limited in scope.”
Nurses are not only clinical experts, but health educators, teaching patients how to manage chronic disease processes, navigate healthcare systems and are ultimately patient advocates. Sandy Summers, co-author of “Saving Lives” 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” delineates how ubiquitous negative portrayals of nursing are in today’s media, particularly three common stereotypes of nurses — the “Angel,” the “Sexy or Naughty Nurse” and the “Battle Axe.” They argue these images of nursing degrade the profession by portraying nurses as vixens, saints, 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. Another problem is that popular television shows often show doctors doing nurse’s jobs: giving medications, checking intravenous (IV) medications, 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. But in real life, nurses are at the patient’s bedside for the majority of the time, helping to manage their care and provide adequate education and discharge planning.
Is all this hoopla simply a matter of semantics? Defining nurses as “helpers” is easier to say than “health educators.” Is it simply linguistic laziness? Afterall, we live in an LOL world with time deadlines necessitating that we say everything in 140 characters or less. The New York Times also ran a story by Theresa Brown, R.N. blogged on Well blog about why stereotypes of nurses is bad for your health. Brown also mentions the book “Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk.”
“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,” writes co-author, Sandy Summers.
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. One media caption is “Nurse Jackie,” airing on Showtime, which features Edie Falco as a capable nurse, although she’s also highly dysfunctional and hardly a role model.
Salem is passionate about health promotion/prevention and adamantly believes the perception of nurses in media should be composed of an understanding of the pillars of the profession, as well as, a realistic portrayal of the responsibilities, realities and challenges which nurses are confronted with in this health care climate. But, she says nurses need to be more vocal, share their knowledge and expertise, as well as, be afforded opportunities to have a voice in the media. She certainly rises above the prevailing images and stereotypes.
The Los Angeles-based Hollywood, Health & Society studies and manages health messages in media. The Kaiser Family Foundation has also tackled how the public sees healthcare issues due to media. There is a shortage of nurses, which is unsettling because there is a high demand for them. In an economy where jobs are scarce, educators should be highlighting the benefits of becoming a nurse. It’s a profession that not only deserves respect, but demands it. The challenge to educate nurses may include a lack of educators or ones that are retiring. The majority of the education is being broadcast by medical doctors, and not nurses. In fact, we see that nurses are overlooked as experts when news programs or media outlets need an opinion on a health issue.
The media is a powerful entity, setting the tone and pace for our sociopolitical environment. Let’s develop realistic depictions on how nurses are portrayed, sending a positive message to young children and the community at large about the profession.
“It is imperative that the community at large is aware of the role and responsibilities of the nursing profession, as well as their clinical expertise, and contributions to academic research and evidence based practice,” Salem says.
Maybe it’s time for a television show called, THE NURSES.