April 27, 2009 -- Today's New York Times Crossword puzzle sought the answer "nurse" with the clue "hospital attendant." But nurses are skilled, autonomous professionals who use their years of college-level education to save lives and improve patient outcomes. They are not "attendants," a word which is generally used to mean an assistant or service worker with relatively little formal education in the relevant field. The clue recalls the Times Crossword's even more inaccurate February 2007 nurse clue "ICU helper." Of course, some will note that it's "just a crossword puzzle." But all mass media has some effect on how people think and act. And the fact that the premiere crossword in the world repeatedly features such clues illustrates the range of media that contributes to the deadly undervaluation of nursing, and of course, also shows how difficult it is to correct such stereotyping. This puzzle was created by Joe Krozel, and the current Times puzzle editor, as in 2007, is Will Shortz.
The clue for 62 Across in today's puzzle is "Hospital attendant." The answer is "nurse." This is not as egregious as the previous clue "ICU helper," because "attendant" is somewhat more ambiguous. Probably the most common understanding today is that the work of an "attendant" entails managing the immediate needs of customers in a particular service environment, but that the work does not necessarily require a great deal of formal training. Examples include "parking lot attendants," "gym attendants," and "wash room attendants." It's true that the term "flight attendant" is commonly used, but that position does not generally require college-level education, and in any case, we are not sure that title is adequate to the important work it describes. Of course, senior physicians are called "attending physicians," but obviously no one understands that term to describe relatively unskilled work.
The bottom line is that referring to nurses as "hospital attendants" signals a gross undervaluation of the work nurses actually do. "Attendants" do not autonomously perform complex clinical assessments or administer high-tech treatments that mean the difference between life and death. There are no doctoral degrees in "hospital attendancy," as there are in nursing. Nurses do not spend years in difficult science classes in order to fetch items for patients, or store their clothes. On the contrary, hospitals exist to provide skilled nursing care.
The Times could do better. It has enough space to include accurate clues for nursing that would not devalue the profession, like "hospital professional" or "health expert." Or would those clues just be too difficult for Times puzzle solvers to get? How many, even in that elite group, would know that those terms fit nursing? Well, better understanding has to start somewhere....hey, we know! How about with the most influential mass media? Please tell those responsible for the Times Crossword to get a clue about nursing.