Changing how the world thinks about nursing

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The 100-year plan

May 6, 2007 -- Today The Record (Northern New Jersey) ran a very good piece by Bob Groves about the poor portrayal of nursing in the entertainment media, working back from the recent "naughty nurse" comments by morning show host Kelly Ripa. "An image problem, from TV to silver screen" explains some of the influential media stereotypes that have dominated the nursing image in recent decades. It relies on quotes from New Jersey nurses and Truth executive director Sandy Summers. We thank Mr. Groves and The Record for the article.

The piece reports that many nurses were "infuriated" by Ripa's joking promise that she would give TV co-host Regis Philbin a "sponge bath" in her "little nursey costume." Among those nurses was Paterson's Christine Cutugno, who joined the Center's campaign on the issue, and who notes that Ripa's remarks were

denigrating to a professional, especially to the most trained, educated nurses who are under the highest pressure. When [open heart patients like Philbin] come out of the O.R., they're on death's door. The physician brings the patient out and leaves them under the care of a nurse.

The piece goes on to explain that "nurses have red-flagged dozens of shows, movies, cartoons and advertisements they feel are denigrating their profession." The article mentions the objects of recent Center campaigns, including Christina Aguilera's Skechers ads, the blood drive ads for the horror movie "Saw III," television psychologist Dr. Phil's suggestion that "cute little nurses" are just husband hunters, and The New York Times crossword puzzle clue calling RNs "I.C.U. helpers." The piece also takes a brief survey of nurse images from the past, from the damaging "Nurse Ratched" of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to Cherry Ames, Margaret Houlihan of "M*A*S*H," and McMurphy on "China Beach." The piece rightly notes that nurses "are already struggling with a worldwide nursing shortage, under-funded nursing schools and a workload that burns out many good nurses," and that nurses say portraying them as "promiscuous and trivial belittles an important profession and hurts recruitment."

The piece does a good job of presenting local nurse reaction to the problem. Westwood's Sally Monahan says nurses are "really fed up." Monahan, who appreciated the heroic vision of nursing in the Ames books, was reportedly part of the 1989 letter-writing campaign that helped end the notorious "Nightingales," a show about "pretty, promiscuous nurses." The piece also reports that the New Jersey State Nurses Association has "established a media-watchdog organization to tackle these issues."

Turning to "the current crop of TV medical dramas," the piece relies mainly on the Center, which has argued that the shows constantly suggest that physicians "do most of the daily hands-on work in hospitals that nurses actually perform." Sandy Summers notes "E.R." and "Scrubs" have positive nurse characters, but she observes that

they don't spend a ton of time doing nursing work. Physicians [in these shows] do most of the defibrillation, triage, monitoring patients, watching blood pressure, patient advocacy, meds -- all the stuff nurses do. So the audience thinks only physicians do the meaningful things and nurses just answer phones, gossip and go for coffee.

The piece reports that "Grey's Anatomy" and "House" are worse because "nurses are essentially invisible," according to Jeanne Otersen, vice president of the union Health Professionals and Allied Employees. Of course, such shows have also expressed contempt for nurses more directly, having respected characters suggest that nurses are brainless sluts, or fawning or vindictive losers--slurs that the shows have essentially left unchallenged.

The piece also discusses measures to promote a more accurate image of nursing. These include the Nursing Spectrum Nurse Hero honors. The piece notes that two of the most recent honorees, both from Bergen County, were honored for "off-duty heroics" in emergencies. Although such nurses obviously deserve the recognition, we are often a little uncomfortable when the media seems to recognize nurses only for acts outside their usual work settings. We wish there was some sense that nurses regularly save lives and improve outcomes in their normal work settings. The focus on their "off-duty heroics" may reinforce the sense much of the public has--certainly the sense Hollywood gives tens of millions of people every week--that nurses don't do anything remarkable in their usual jobs, because there are physicians around to do it then.

The piece asks whether "these awards and the protests [can] overcome the stereotypes." In response it quotes Summers:

We're on the 100-year plan. The media image won't get fixed overnight. Changing what people think about nurses takes a long time.

One quibble: the piece refers to Cynthia Vlasich, who works for Nursing Spectrum publisher Gannett Healthcare Group, as a "former nurse." This is a subtle but common reflection of the prevalent belief that nursing is not so much a profession as a relatively low-skilled job that you do until you leave. Once you are no longer physically at the bedside, even if you still work in a health-related field as Vlasich does, you are no longer a nurse. Nursing is what you do, not what you know. By contrast, it is rare to see physicians described as "former physicians" no matter what they currently do. For instance, consider how often Bill Frist or Howard Dean are described that way.

On the whole, though, the piece is a very helpful discussion of the common media stereotypes, and we thank Mr. Groves and The Record for running it.

See the article "An image problem, from TV to silver screen" by Bob Groves from the May 6, 2007 edition of The Record.

Please send messages of thanks to Mr. Groves at groves@northjersey.com and please copy us at letters@truthaboutnursing.org

 

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