Fall 2012 TV Preview: Nursing in the Media

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Fall 2012 TV Preview: Nursing in the Media

Call the MidwifeSeptember 2012 -- More new health-related shows arrive in the fall U.S. television season, and there is actually one new nurse-focused show--the six-part BBC drama Call the Midwife, which focuses on Anglican and lay nurse midwives (apparently eight of them!) who care for poor women in 1950's London. The show, a big hit in the U.K. earlier this year, will air on PBS (premiering Sept. 30). Hollywood-wise, there do seem to be a couple sidekick nurse characters, but the primetime landscape will still be dominated by physician characters--we count 47 physicians to 2 nurses. This year, the four new network shows have different spins on Hollywood's health care portrayals, but none seems likely to question the prevailing view that only physicians really matter in health care. Fox's The Mob Doctor (Sept. 17) tells the story of one of the nation's "most promising young surgeons" who is "caught between two worlds as she juggles her promising medical career with her family's debt to Chicago's Southside mob." Right. And although the surgeon's "protective best friend" is nurse Rosa Quintero, the other three hospital characters are all physicians. In Fox's sitcom The Mindy Project (Sept. 25), created by and starring The Office veteran Mindy Kaling, the lead character is a romantically challenged OB-GYN; in addition to the four physician characters, there is a "male nurse" who is a "reformed ex-con." NHSIn the new NBC drama Do No Harm (mid-season), the lead neurosurgeon character has a "dangerous alternate personality," but aside from that unusual concept, the show seems to be dominated by its five physician characters. The CW's Emily Owens, MD (Oct. 16) sounds like the most conventional new show. It's not just the name; with all six major characters apparently pretty young surgeons struggling valiantly to grow up, it's Grey's-tastic! And speaking of which, among veteran shows, ABC's Grey's Anatomy (Sept. 27) still has about 14 surgeon characters and no nurses as it starts its ninth season. A few episodes last season did feature "Nurse Eli," the boyfriend of star surgeon Miranda Bailey and a nurse who displayed some health care skill and patient advocacy, but even that plotline ultimately confirmed that nurses are physician subordinates, with Bailey dumping Eli in a way that implied it was because he was just a nurse. The Grey's spinoff, ABC's Private Practice (Sept. 25), limps back for what may be its last year with plenty of heroic physicians but no significant nurse characters. ABC's Body of Proof (mid-season), about an elite surgeon-turned-medical examiner, returns for a third season having lost all its police characters, but none of its four physicians. The CW's romantic comedy-drama Hart of Dixie (Oct. 2) returns for a second season with the concept of a cute young New York physician who finds herself in a small Southern town. Lest we forget the one bright spot on premium cable, Showtime's powerful Nurse Jackie (spring 2013) will return early next year for a fifth season of Jackie's clinical expertise and creative patient advocacy, and if last season is any guide, some unfortunate suggestions that nurses report to physicians. On the whole, Hollywood looks set to continue telling viewers that health care is all about smart, commanding physicians, and nurses are their low-skilled helpers.

JackieMaybe we should be happy about Call the Midwife, as limited as its broadcast time and its PBS audience will be, and about the two nurse sidekicks in the new Hollywood shows. The past two prime time broadcast seasons had been essentially nurse-free, something that had not happened in more than 40 years. Up until 2010, there had always been at least one (usually only one) major nurse character on some health-related prime time broadcast show. Of course, in 2009, an amazing three nurse-focused shows were introduced, including one on a broadcast network, NBC's Mercy, and TNT's summer show HawthoRNe. Mercy lasted one regular season and Hawthorne three summer seasons, so the only one left is Nurse Jackie, with its fierce, vastly talented (and flawed) central nurse character Jackie Peyton and her skilled protégé Zoey Barkow. Still, it is a premium cable show with 12-episode seasons and even fewer viewers than HawthoRNe had.

Other shows have featured nurses or nurse characters. During this past summer, ABC broadcast the latest of producer Terence Wrong's reality series about prominent hospitals. This one, the 8-part NY Med, focused on New York Presbyterian Hospital, and like Wrong's Boston Med (2010), there were occasional appearances by nurses among the extended scenes presenting physicians, particularly surgeons, as moral and intellectual heroes. As before, the nurses did display a minor amount of knowledge and some slight skills, but no viewer will come away thinking that nursing is a great health profession like medicine is. The summer menu alsoSaving Hope included NBC's Saving Hope, which sounds like a parody of TV health melodrama, but which was actually a serious drama about a surgeon who lies in a coma while those around him try to cope with his absence. There were three minor recurring nurse characters, Victor Reis, Jackson Wade, and "Olivia," but the 10 major physician characters dominated in the standard ways. There is also a recurring nurse character A&E's The Glades, which just finished its third season. In that show, the lead detective character's girlfriend Callie Cargill remains a competent nurse with occasional chances to show clinical skill, but she also seems to remain a medical student, reinforcing the wannabe physician cliché. And during the regular season, one character on NBC's sitcom Parks & Recreation (Sept. 20), Ann Perkins, is a nurse.

These characters are generally positive, at least within the contexts of their shows, and perhaps there is some benefit to that--the implied message that nurses can be strong and decent and have normal intelligence, which mildly counters some nursing stereotypes. But none of the shows really displays much nursing, and none is likely to greatly alter anyone's views of the profession.

So what remains? A wave of serial dramas whose faces and premises may shift, but which still embody the core assumption that physicians do everything that really matters in modern health care, including many key tasks that nurses do in real life, with the occasional direct insult to nursing thrown in for good measure. See more details on the shows below!

Call the Midwife Do No Harm The Mob Doctor
The Mindy Project Emily Owens, MD Grey's Anatomy
Private Practice Body of Proof Hart of Dixie
Nurse Jackie Conclusion  

       
 

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Media images of health care--like the ones on ABC's popular Grey's Anatomy-- have an important effect on the nursing profession. Many nurses and nursing students feel frustrated when influential media products undervalue nurses. But how can we change what the media tells the public about nursing? Sandy Summers has led high-profile efforts to promote more accurate and robust depictions of nursing since 2001. She has shared her insights in dynamic presentations to groups across North America. She empowers nurses and teaches them how to shape their image into one that reflects the profession's true value. When nurses get the respect they deserve, they will attract more resources for nursing practice, education, and research, so we can resolve the nursing shortage. Sign Sandy up for your next conference, nurses' week celebration, or gala event! Click here for more details.

 

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The Truth About Nursing is an international non-profit organization based in Baltimore that seeks to help the public understand the central role nurses play in health care. The Truth promotes more accurate media portrayals of nurses and greater use of nurses as expert sources. The group is led by Sandy Summers, co-author of Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All At Risk.

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Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Founder and Executive Director
The Truth About Nursing
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