Our executive director's letter to MSF / Doctors Without Borders about its name, which gives all credit for its work to physicians. (Our petiiton is now closed)
Dear MSF Leaders:
I am writing to request that your organization give due credit to the largest group of health professionals in your organization--nurses--for the work that they do to move your mission forward. I commend you for your work helping distressed persons across the world, and most recently, for creating the informative documentary film "Living in Emergency" about your efforts. However, I believe that this film and other elements of your public relations efforts--most fundamentally the name of your group itself--send damaging messages about the nurses who do so much to advance your mission.
"Living in Emergency" tells the stories of four physicians and no nurses, giving viewers the impression that physicians are the only professionals at MSF who are doing work that really matters. Only physicians appear to help patients, even though your own publicist reports that nurses outnumber physicians at MSF. This film tells its stories almost completely through the eyes of its four physician stars. Only they provide voiceover narration. They discuss their backgrounds, their frustrations, their plans. We do occasionally see other MSF workers, especially in a few clinical scenes. But these scenes focus only on what the physicians are doing, and only they reveal health expertise.
Nurses are virtually never identified, they speak very little, and their perspectives are never explored or even explained. It is possible that if nurses had been included in the film, there would have been a little more of a holistic perspective on MSF's work and the larger problems that confront its patients. There might even have been some patient education. No viewer will come away from the film thinking that nurses play any significant role at all in MSF's health care, since viewers hear absolutely nothing about the nurses' work, or their perspectives. I urge you to create another documentary, this time showing the work of nurses.
I hope you will also consider adopting a name that shows respect for nurses and other key health workers. I understand that MSF was founded by physicians, but that does not change the fact that the name sends an inaccurate message about what the group does around the world today. Sadly, MSF's current name seems to reflect the undervaluation of nursing that is undermining health worldwide, particularly in the very developing nations MSF tries to help. I believe that a group with the prominence and resources of MSF could easily navigate a minor name change. The corporate world is full of major companies that have changed their names completely in recent years as a result of mergers. I doubt anyone would be confused about a change to a name like "Soins Sans Fronti�res" ("Health Care Without Borders"). Indeed, the name change itself could provide helpful publicity.
There is precedent for large organizations changing the way they do things in order to fairly credit nurses for their work. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services commendably agreed to change the name of its annual minority health campaign from "Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day" to "Take a Loved One for a Checkup Day."